Bhopal: On 13 May, Madhya Pradesh became the first state to take note of children who have lost parents to Covid.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced the ‘CM Covid-19 Bal Kalyan Yojana’, which would disburse Rs 5,000 a month for ‘Covid orphans’ — referring to those who have lost their parents to the virus — and “those families who have lost their father, the earning guardian”.
“Education of all such children will be made free of cost so that they can continue their studies,” the CM had then said.
#COVID19 महामारी ने कई परिवारों को तोड़कर रख दिया। कई परिवार ऐसे हैं, जिनके बुढ़ापे का सहारा छिन गया और कुछ ऐसे बच्चे हैं, जिनके सिर से पिता का साया उठ गया है।
वे बच्चे, जिनके पिता, अभिभावक का साया उठ गया और कोई कमाने वाला नहीं है, इन परिवारों को रु.5000 प्रतिमाह पेंशन दी जाएगी। pic.twitter.com/vUKaioQSL5
— Shivraj Singh Chouhan (@ChouhanShivraj) May 13, 2021
But when the guidelines of the scheme were released a week later, they didn’t match the CM’s statement.
The eligibility criteria of the scheme, instead, said the children should “have lost both mother and father to Covid-19” and that the deaths should have occurred between 1 March and 30 June 2021 — during the second wave.
Officials admitted that the rules had been tweaked since the CM’s announcement.
Swati Meena, Director, Women and Child Development, said the reason the scheme in its final form only caters to those who have lost both parents is because they are most vulnerable to child trafficking and illegal adoption, and hence they need to be protected “on priority”.
“Children who are completely orphaned are most vulnerable and likely to fall into the trap of child trafficking and illegal adoption,” Meena said. “Our primary focus was to safeguard these children by making sure their blood relatives or new guardians don’t leave them in such a difficult time.”
But sources in the government said when the policy was being drafted the number of children who have lost one parent was “found to be huge”, so the scheme was kept limited to those who have lost both parents.
According to MP government figures, as many as 1,200 children in the state have lost one parent to Covid-19 during the second surge, while 250 children have lost both parents.
Meena insisted that while those who have lost their earning parent “is also an issue that needs to be addressed”, the orphans were a “high focus group”.
“If we opened the scheme to all such children, it would have been a high number and what is needed right now is a highly focused approach to ensure safety for children with no parents,” she added.
Vishal Nadkarni, Joint Director, WCD, defended the timeline of the scheme, which covers only those who lost their parents in the second wave.
Nadkarni said the strict timeline was to make it a “very easy process”.
“For the purpose of this scheme, we are treating any death between this time period as a Covid death,” Nadkarni said. “So if a child has lost both parents during this period, we will consider it a Covid death — no questions asked. This will make the process hassle-free.”
He added that there is another scheme for children who have lost one parent in the crisis.
“There is already a state sponsorship scheme that provides Rs 2,000 per month to children in need. Those children can be covered under that,” he told ThePrint.
The scheme being referred to is the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) under which children who are battling various familial issues — loss of parents, financial crisis, terminally ill parents — get Rs 2,000 per month, until they turn 18. This scheme, however, doesn’t include other important benefits that have been announced as part of the ‘Covid orphans’ initiative.
For instance, the scheme for Covid orphans promises free education until the age of 21. Moreover, if the child pursues studies beyond the age of 21, the education will be taken care of until the age of 24. There is no such provision in ICPS.
Sources in the WCD told ThePrint that the existing scheme for vulnerable children is likely to be refined in the coming weeks to ensure those who have lost their earning parent are given better provisions as well.
Families who lost earning parent complain of being ‘left out’
All this, however, is little consolation for families that have lost their earning members.
Hridesh, 15, and Jeet, 7, lost their father Santosh Malviya to Covid in April.
The two live in a small room with their mother, in Bhopal’s Damkheda, and the family’s income has taken a major hit since Malviya’s death. He worked as a driver and managed to earn between Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 a month, his wife Shagun Malviya said.
“We have barely managed food since his death. I don’t know how I will raise my kids now,” said Shagun, a homemaker. “We had got our younger kid admitted to a private school with much difficulty. But there’s no way I will be able to pay his fees now.”
Shagun said she was relieved when she learnt of the ‘Covid orphan’ scheme, but when she decided to apply for it, she was told her children aren’t eligible as they haven’t lost both parents.
“But for us, the kids are as good as orphans,” she said. “He (my husband) was the only earning member, this scheme would have helped us a lot.”
There is, however, one clause which makes children who have lost only one parent to Covid in the second surge eligible for the financial aid — if they had already lost their other parent earlier in life, due to any reason.
Not the only problem
But there are other issues with the ‘Covid orphans’ scheme as well.
Child rights’ activists point out that all the children who lost their parents to Covid before 1 March will be left in the lurch.
“There are several children who lost their parents to Covid before March 2021. They are in a hapless state too, and need help as well,” said Prashant Dubey, founder of Awaaz, a child rights’ NGO in Madhya Pradesh.
Families also dispute the government’s “hassle-free” claim, alleging that the process of arranging all the documents has been “traumatic”.
Vanisha, 16, and Vivan, 10, lost their parents to Covid in May, in an interval of 10 days. Still in school, they were barely able to make sense of the tragedy when they were handed PDF files of the scheme by their relatives and well-wishers.
“Everyone thought this would be a very good way to ensure some security for them,” said Rachit Sharma, their 23-year-old cousin.
But arranging documents — a death certificate that says they died of Covid, Aadhaar card of the two children, Aadhaar cards of their deceased parents, school certificates and several other requirements — became a big challenge for the family.
“We were emotionally distraught and completely broken. But the endless spree of documents required made everything so much more difficult,” Rachit told ThePrint.
For the money to be transferred, the scheme requires a joint account to be maintained between the orphaned child and the new legal guardian. In this case, the guardian was going to be Rachit’s father. “But when we went to the bank, we were told they are not opening any new accounts due to the lockdown. What was the point of all of this then?” Rachit said.
One of the first cases of Covid-orphans highlighted in the state was that of five-year-old twin sisters Ruhi and Mahi who lost their parents in May.
Their maternal grandfather Subhash Raikwar decided to be their legal guardian, but when he decided to avail of the scheme, he was told the death certificate of both the deceased needs to say Covid.
“Their father died in the hospital, so the death certificate issued from there clearly said Covid. Their mother died a few days later at home, so her death certificate doesn’t say that,” Raikawar told ThePrint. “After initial insistence for the death certificate, the authorities agreed to make do with her Covid positive report.”
The MP government’s scheme for Covid orphan prompted many other states to bring their own schemes of this kind.
Just days ago, the Centre also announced the ‘PM CARES for Children’ scheme, but a Supreme Court bench Tuesday directed the Modi government to furnish more details of the initiative, saying “particulars of the scheme are not available”.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)