Supreme Court of India I Photo: PTI
New Delhi: Observing that it cannot even imagine how many children in this large country have got orphaned due to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court Friday directed the State authorities to immediately identify them and provide relief.
The top court asked state governments to understand the agony of children starving on the streets and directed the district authorities that they be immediately taken care of without waiting for any further orders from the courts.
A vacation bench of Justices L N Rao and Aniruddha Bose directed district administrations to identify the orphans in their areas and upload their data on the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) website by Saturday evening.
The top court's direction came on an application filed by amicus curiae Gaurav Agrawal in the pending suo motu case seeking identification of orphaned children due to COVID-19 or otherwise and providing them immediate relief by the state governments.
The bench said state governments must inform it of the position of these children and the steps they have taken to provide them immediate relief.
“We have read somewhere that in Maharashtra over 2,900 children have lost their one or both the parents due to COVID-19. We don't have an exact number of such children. We cannot even imagine how many such children in this large country have got orphaned due to this devastating pandemic,” the bench said.
It told the state government's counsel appearing in the matter, “I hope you understand the agony of the children starving on the streets. You please ask the state authorities to immediately take care of their basic needs”.
The top court noted that the Centre has already issued advisory to the concerned authorities for the protection of children, who have lost their parents due to COVID-19.
“There is an obligation on the part of the authorities to ensure such children in need are taken care of,” the bench said, while referring to various provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act.
It said the district administration authorities should upload the latest data of such orphaned children on the website ‘Baal Swaraj' of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) by Saturday evening.
“We are of the opinion that Centre and State shall get the latest information on the identification of children, who have lost their one or both the parents due to pandemic and the steps taken to attend to their basic needs”, it said, and listed the matter on June 1.
At the outset, Agrawal said that he has filed the application as there are numerous children, who have lost one or both the parents or guardians due to the COVID and they need to be immediately taken care of by the state governments.
He said there are two categories of children adversely affected due to the COVID-19 -- the ones who lost both parents/guardians and those who have lost the earning parent/guardian of the family since March 2020.
Agrawal said another issue of concern is that there are increased instances of child trafficking, especially of the girl child.
“The situation is likely to become acute as the number of families adversely affected by the second wave of COVID-19 is perhaps higher,” he said.
It is imperative that the functionaries under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 as also the state governments take steps to identify vulnerable families that is families who have children and have lost livelihood due to COVID-19, he added.
He further said that they should be provided assistance in terms of food, ration, clothing, other necessities and financial help (to the extent possible), and assistance in locating temporary employment under government schemes.
Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre, said the government has already issued an advisory to the state government to ensure that children orphaned or in need are taken care of.
She said the NCPCR has already developed a portal and is tracking such children who got orphaned due to the pandemic.
Advocate Swarupama Chaturvedi, appearing for NCPCR, said that they have a portal called ‘Baal Swaraj' to track such children and officers at the district level have been given passwords to upload their data on the centralised portal to ensure their tracking.
In the application, Agrawal said that coordinated efforts by district administration, the district police and the functionaries under Juvenile Justice Act like Child Welfare Committees for identification and providing support was needed.
“It is humbly suggested that state governments may consider setting up a District Task Force in each district having representatives from the district administration (like SDM), the police authorities (like DSP) and the functionaries under JJ Act, which would be tasked with identification of vulnerable families and providing assistance that is food, ration, clothing, other necessities and financial assistance to vulnerable families”, the application said.
It sought direction to state governments to take concrete steps to identify victims of child trafficking, children who have lost their parent/guardian(s)/earning parent/ guardian, and children whose families have lost all means of livelihood due to the present pandemic.