As India continues to reel from the devastating COVID-19 second wave, children are reported to be suffering from some of the worst ‘collateral damage’ — hunger and malnutrition, fear of the virus, and abuse and violence. Against this backdrop of dystopian childhood especially affecting children of vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds, child helpline 1098 reportedly recorded 51 calls between May 1 and 12, 2021, for children whose parents have succumbed to the virus.
These are children left in a vacuum following the death of a parent/ both parents, in most cases the only earning parent. The children thus orphaned are now referred to as COVID orphans, a term that has gained much currency across social media in the last few weeks.
It was in early May when a fleet of urgent adoption pleas started doing rounds on social media platforms and WhatsApp groups that child rights activists took cognizance of the issue gaining intensity. Amid this surge in frantically spreading messages, concerns regarding the safety and security of COVID orphans have only manifolded ever since.
Responding to the illegal adoption of children orphaned or abandoned owing to the pandemic, the Supreme Court has directed that “invitation to persons for adoption of orphans is contrary to law as no adoption of a child can be permitted without the involvement of Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA).”
“No adoption of affected children should be permitted contrary to the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, 2015. Stringent action shall be taken by the State Governments/Union Territories (UTs) against agencies/individuals who are responsible for indulging in this illegal activity,” the bench comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and Aniduddha Bose ordered.
The order also directed state governments/UTs to take disciplinary actions against NGOs from collecting funds in the names of the affected children by disclosing their identity and inviting interested persons to adopt them. The order was passed in the suo moto case initiated by the Supreme Court to deal with issues concerning children affected by COVID-19.
Advocate Shobha Gupta’s petition
It was advocate Shobha Gupta who filed an application in the suo moto case on behalf of a women-led organization ‘We the Women of India’. The Supreme Court took notice of Gupta’s application, along with the submission made by Additional Solicitor General KM Nataraj, to pass these orders against public advertisements and social media posts inviting people to adopt orphans.
When asked about her application, Gupta told MAKERS India, “The law doesn’t permit adoption by any private agency privately; it only permits adoption through CARA. This has been constituted under Section 68 of the JJ Act, and the CARA website lists every bit of information right from how to adopt, to who can be adopted and who can adopt. The agencies authorized by CARA have verified that not only is the very exercise of putting up social media posts/ public advertisements for adoption illegal but even the posts themselves are illegal/ fake. In case there is no good caretaker or relative who is willing to step in and the child will be the legal inheritor of the biological parents’ properties upon reaching adulthood, how does one safeguard the interests of the child in the face of potentially harmful posts that could be promoting racketeering? Under CARA, there is a periodical supervision of the progress made by the adopted child undertaken by the authorized agencies. What is the checks and balance procedure adopted by private agencies? It is necessary that adoption takes place only in compliance with CARA to completely do away with the threats of child trafficking. And, it’s not a choice; it is the only law that is available.”
Adoption of COVID orphans, an ugly truth
The Supreme Court noted in the order that 30,071 children have become orphans or have lost one parent or abandoned due to COVID-19 as per data collected by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) till June 6, 2021.
Regarding the second part of her application that the Supreme Court has endorsed, Gupta said that the JJ Act is a broad act and not everyone can be expected to have awareness about it. The barrier to information would be especially high among people of vulnerable sections with limited access to news media, smartphones and internet as well as avenues to seek justice. It is mandatory for the Union of India and the state governments/ UTs to provide wide publicity “to the provisions of the JJ Act, 2015 and the prevailing schemes of the Union of India and the state governments/UTs, which would benefit the affected children.”
The anonymity and the ease of ‘faking’ or communicating via impostor accounts that a social media platform provides poses grave threats to the rights to protection and privacy of a child. Several child rights experts have voiced concern against such social media messages often conveying an emotional urgency, and claimed that they could be tricked by “trafficking gangs”. This could result in a vicious chain of events putting trusting children through child sexual abuse and violence.
In fact, the current situation has not only put a question mark on the prospects of protection, privacy and dignity of affected children but also on their education. As Gupta says, “My additional suggestion — that I could not submit to Court due to constraints in time — would be to convert the admission of children who have lost parents or the earning parent due to the pandemic into Economically Weaker Section (EWS) in private schools. This benevolence must be shown even if it means crossing the mandatory 25% coverage of EWS in each classroom as stipulated under the Right to Education Act.”
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)