A racketeering plague amidst a Pandemic
TW: mentions of d*ath, s*xual ass*ult
The past two years saw news reports filled with grim pictures of death and devastation that plagued the country. Despite such major media attention to the effects of the pandemic, several hundreds of cases passed under the radar- the cases of the covid orphans.
The picture in numbers
In an affidavit filed before the Supreme court on June 1, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) -- a statutory body -- reported that between April 1 last year and June 5 this year — a period that saw the country battle two waves of Covid-19 — 3,621 children were orphaned; 26,176 lost one of the parents; and 274 were abandoned across the country. Of this more than 9,300 are believed to be directly affected by the pandemic.
Many believe these numbers follow the suspected trend of ‘under-reporting’ seen throughout the pandemic.
Social media: traffickers playfield
With this sudden surge in children without guardians, came another, terrifying threat: INCREASED TRAFFICKING. Social media has become an ‘Amazon-like’ service, allowing people to pick children for adoption. There is an open sharing of numbers and children’s photos.
"One of my staff members called the number in the Facebook page, and they quoted the price of $7,000 for one child. We have reported the group to the police." - Anurag Kundu, Chairperson, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
A lot of the messages floating around have turned out to be fake, with most following the same format where only the contact details have been changed. These blatantly illegal messages raise fears in India that children can be exploited for cheap manual labor or even sex work.
Contrary to what many believe, orphans are not the only ones who require special attention. Even children who have lost one parent find themselves in painful situations. There have been cases where one parent had died and the other one, usually the father, pushed children into manual work. In another, a father began sexually assaulting his daughters after the mother became very sick with Covid.
State governments have begun ramping up efforts to care for India's pandemic orphans, but experts say much more needs to be done. The risk is that many children may grow up from this moment without a family around them.
Expressing concern over illegal adoption the Supreme Court has directed state governments and Union Territories to “prevent any NGO from collecting funds in the names of the affected children by disclosing their identity and inviting interested persons to adopt them”. Additionally, the court asked the states and UTs to “continue identifying” COVID affected children and ensure that there is no break in their education. It asked the District Child Protection Units to assess the guardians and provide for adequate ration, food, medicine, clothing etc for the affected child.
So why is the common man playing messenger and forwarding these notorious requests on social media? The root cause is the illiteracy of the people when it comes to India’s adoption process.
India has strict adoption laws. The Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) -- a statutory body under the Ministry of Women & Child Development -- is responsible for overseeing adoptions across the country.
In conjunction, every state has a child protection and welfare commission and a number of NGOs help in identifying children who are at risk. There is a national portal for adoption where people seeking to adopt children can register themselves. Only after a suitable match is made and comprehensive evaluations performed on the parents, is a child "legally free for adoption".
"Any child adoption without following this process is an illegal adoption. Even if a child is handed over by police, [it's illegal]. If they tell you they have found a child in the bushes and ask you to take him/her home, it's absolutely illegal," - Pankaj Kumar Mishra, a Women and Child Development (WCD) district probation officer
The flame behind the fire.
Apart from feeding into our country's racketeering business, the upsurge in children without proper care has served as a wake-up call towards India’s abysmally low adoption rates. Just 3,351 children were adopted in the year to March 2020, while tens of thousands were orphaned. By comparison, more than 66,000 children were adopted in the US in 2019.
And the size of the issue has only increased ever since.
The reason behind this neglect? India’s rigid adoption system. Adoption laws, in theory, are meant to be “CHILD FRIENDLY, NOT PEOPLE FRIENDLY”. However, this results in the process for adopting a child being a long one. It can take approximately six to seven months, sometimes, even years for a couple to adopt a child.
Moreover, eligible parents have to meet certain stipulations, most of which are necessary, but some regulations have been the face of controversy, notably-
A single male shall not be eligible to adopt a girl child.
No child shall be given in adoption to a couple unless they have at least two years of stable marital relationship
These laws curtail the ability for joint legal custody for unmarried couples, and pose concerns due to the lack of marriage equality in the country. A prospective short-term solution to alleviate the problem is foster care, rather than full adoption. It allows children to be looked after by friends and families, providing them a better environment than care homes and institutionalized centres. However, the idea is yet to gain traction.
"It is a myth that every child is adopted. Family members can always come forward. Foster care is a great idea but in our country it has not taken off, even though there is a specific provision in the law." – Anurag Kundu
Has the government stepped up?
An orphaned child living with extended family (first relatives of parents, such as grandparents and siblings of parents), or with an adoptive family or at a shelter home receives Rs 2,000 every month for their care through a sponsorship programme under the central government's Integrated Child Protection Scheme.
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced additional relief measures for the COVID orphans, to help reintegrate them in society. According to the statement they will receive-
Guaranteed enrolment in the nearest central government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya or private school,
A monthly stipend of Rs. 5000 from age 18 for five years
Help with securing an educational loan for higher studies
Rs. 10 lakh on turning 23 years old.
The costs of the scheme would be supported by the PM-CARES fund. The state governments have also agreed to set up financial aids for such children. However, many will face a problem accessing these benefits, as one needs to be registered online to avail them. Many children whose parents have died have either limited access to computers, or find it hard to complete an online process by themselves or even with the help of their guardian.
The young lives uprooted by the pandemic will take eons, if not never, to return to normalcy. Government policies and judicial laws can only provide the framework for improvement, but the problem needs to be tackled at the grassroot. As educated citizens, it is crucial for us to put a stop to the circulation of heinous messages. Also if one ever encounters a child who has been abandoned, please call the child helpline number 1098 to make sure the authorities are notified and the child is provided a secure environment.
~ Devangi Sharma