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“Two young children are alone. Their parents are in hospital and they have no food,” a voice said over the phone and immediately disconnected the call.
The call was received by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an NGO headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi. Two children were in distress and had to be reached, but how? The “informer” just wouldn’t respond to repeated phone calls.
The only clue available was that the call had originated from Chattisgarh. BBA made a call to the police in Raipur, which in turn, activated its cyber cell, and within a few hours, the number was traced to Kawardah, a town in Kabirdham district, approximately 120 km from the state capital.
A police team soon reached the informer’s home who turned out to be a neighbour, too scared to approach the two children, aged six and eight, for fear of contracting Covid-19. The children had been without food but were also frightened. Would their parents return? When would they come back? The dark night held few answers.
Helplines such as that of BBA have been ringing non-stop. The news at the other end of the line is always dismaying, distressing and heartbreaking. Each call is a desperate plea for help — from children themselves, from relatives, neighbours, resident welfare associations and often from friends of minor children who are minors themselves.
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BBA posted a helpline number on Twitter in end-April. Previously a child rights helpline, the service has now been converted into a Covid child helpline. It received 416 calls in ten days. Its executive director, Dhananjay Tingal, says, “We are helping in multiple ways, from counselling children who cannot articulate their trauma to providing rations, educational fees and cremation costs.”
BBA managed to keep a record of its calls but several NGOs say they have lost count. Calls are coming in the thousands.
Protsahan India Foundation, which partners with Aziz Premji Philanthropic Initiatives and UNICEF, received 19 calls in a single day on May 11, each informing the organisation of the death of the father.
Each statistic speaks of untold grief. The 19 families accounted for 43 children and at least four wives were pregnant. Protsahan, which helps 48 urban slums in West Delhi, has now connected them to midwives and is providing ration and scholarships for the devastated families.
Sonal Kapoor, founder director of Protsahan India Foundation, finds herself working late into the nights these days. “I don’t like to refer to the children as Covid orphans. What we need is for kinship care to kick in on an urgent basis. Institutional care and shelter homes should be the last resort. The grief and trauma will damage the children and they will grow up to be broken adults. We are working on the short-term and the long-term.” She and her team are heartbroken too, but soldier on.
There is no time to grieve. No time for a pause, a little breather. The problems surrounding children is a pandemic in itself.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur, an 18-year-old has become the primary caregiver after the rampaging virus ravaged her father’s lungs and he could breathe no more. Her mother is still coping with the loss and there are two younger siblings who need to be taken care of. There is another elder in the house – an Uncle (chacha) – but he is addicted to drugs and often opens the gate of the house and saunters out into locked streets.
“My father was our main financial support. He was a teacher and a tutor. He insisted that I focus on taking the IAS exams that I was studying for. How do I fulfil his dream now? The day passes but the nights are long. I have problems sleeping. We are all depressed. Nobody from the neighbourhood was willing to lend a shoulder to carry my father’s body.”
She is 18 and therefore, technically, not a minor, but the burden of the family has landed squarely on her young shoulders. An NGO has helped. Vijay Vidrohi, a part of Pratap Sewa Samiti got the entire family tested for Covid-19 and is helping the family with ration stocks and also took care of the last rites.
The 18-year-old struggles with fear and apprehension, day on day. She is a college student but the faculty is shut. The freedom of open spaces and peer interaction at college is lost and the walls of her home are closing in on her, she says, as she tries not to cry on the phone.
The struggle for millions of children and their families is not limited to the financials alone. Some can access only one meal a day; others are taking up petty jobs at tea stalls and shops and more still are taking to begging. The most startling, and disturbing, of all — some are selling their bodies.
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Says Protsahan’s Sonal Kapoor, “There is an escalation of child labour and we have found girls being forced to engage in transactional sex — offering their bodies in exchange of food for their families. When we speak to the mothers of these girls, they say ‘to feed four children, we have to sacrifice one’. We are focusing on nutrition and safe deliveries for pregnant mothers (some of whom are recent Covid widows), dry ration high in proteins for children, and emotional psychological support and even professional therapy. It’s like drowning in the sea. An NGO can’t be the system. We can only help plug the system.”
Many are racing against time – amid an increasing number of children needing help – to try and be that plug. Multiple plugs are needed — to help with nutrition, with medication, with therapy, with domestic violence and sexual abuse, with child marriages and child trafficking. Fears of child trafficking networks slowly penetrating the pandemic are real and organisations are trying hard to guard against it.
Social media is flooded with messages detailing the legal process to adopt children under the Juvenile Justice Act and there is a flurry of statements from child right bodies on how they are helping. Anurag Kundu, chairperson, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, in a statement said, “Children are the most vulnerable in these testing times as they remain dependent on others to provide for them. The panel is receiving numerous cases wherein a child has lost all sources of support and is in need of immediate care. The commission is committed to resolving all such cases in less than 24 hours.” He also posted a thread on how children can be legally adopted.
The second wave has hit children harder. The trauma doesn’t stop with the loss of either or both parents. The emotional wound needs to be treated. Many children have not seen their parents for the last time because Covid protocols don’t allow for bodies to be brought home, and so, there is no closure.
Acknowledging this, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights NCPCR said, “While calls to counsellors over the last two-three months have been fewer and mostly about anxiety around exam schedules, the second wave of cases has brought children’s health and mental well-being back into focus. The NCPCR has written to the state authorities asking them to re-circulate information about the tele-counselling facility at Covid care centres and isolation facilities and sensitise staff, doctors and frontline workers so that children can be guided to seek help from experts on the toll free number.”
Prayas, run by former Delhi Police officer Amod Kanth, is isolating children in quarantine centres, taking in children who have been orphaned and rescuing minors who have been left to beg on the streets, with help from child welfare committees.
Ajay Tomar, a counsellor with Prayas, is trying to heal the children emotionally but it’s an uphill task. “What do you tell a 14-year-old who, after losing her father, is grappling with a deep sense of isolation and abandonment and the question in her mind is, Will I lose my mother too?’’ he says. Her mother is unable to look after her and she is currently at the shelter home.
Similarly, Manoj Wadhwa, currently in Gurugram, is trying to fend for his 10-year-old Rajasthan-based niece who has lost both parents. The child has a medical problem and her medical expenses add up to ₹25,000 a month.
Wadhwa lost his three-year-old son in an accident not long ago. “I understand the pain. My heart melts but what do I do? Only the NGOs are helping me. I am fighting for justice for my son. I have sued the contractor who left a gaping hole in the road, but who do I sue now? Who do I blame?” he asks.
Who indeed? The government is still waking up to the child protection emergency. The ministry of women and child development has sought information on Covid orphans from various state governments and reiterated the need for respecting due process, but the road ahead is long and arduous.