Amidst COVID-19, Why Did Govt Not Plan For Child Protection Steps?

Surely our govt didn’t think India would be immune to COVID-19. So, why didn’t it take steps to protect children?

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

On 24 March, at 8 PM, the Prime Minister announced a 21-day COVID-19 lockdown, giving 1.3 billion people of his country precisely four night-time hours to prepare for it. Today, our roads are heaving under the weight of thousands of migrant workers as they march ‘home’ – hungry, thirsty and penniless. They do not have the luxury of savings, and the suddenness of the announcement robbed them of the opportunity to plan even the barest minimum. So they packed whatever little they could, and along with their families, began walking.

We have no idea how many children are walking with their families – carrying siblings or potlis on their heads – throats parched, stomachs rumbling and feet blistered and bleeding.

There are reports of children who have died in accidents. We will never know the real numbers, nor whether they in fact fell down dead from sheer exhaustion.

Could this humungous calamity have been prevented? Certainly, with some planning to ensure that food and shelter would be available to those most in need. And if the advisory – that states must ensure that migrant workers receive timely and full pay, and that landlords do not demand rent from them – had been put out as a pre-emptive measure rather than as an afterthought.

Demands for Immediate Release of Children in Institutions, Amid Corona Outbreak

As if this was not enough, on 30 March, we woke up to yet another ‘announcement’. In view of the coronavirus crisis, the Centre has advised childcare institutions to send back home children who are in conflict with the law. In its advisory dated 28 March, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) stated that this directive was in line with a Supreme Court order (writ petition (c) No 1/2020) directing all states to release prisoners on parole or interim bail to reduce overcrowding in jails.

Consequently, the NCPCR has asked state governments to prepare a list of such children in observation and special homes, so that they can be released.

Indeed, there is nothing wrong with the contents of this advisory. Institutionalisation must be the last resort. It is well known that children have been languishing in institutions, even when they did not need to be there. We know from a study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) itself that 53.6 percent homes did not have adequate number of caregivers per child, and only 28.7 percent homes had adequate food.

As with the sudden and unexpected announcement of the lockdown, in this case too it is the timing that is of concern.

News of the coronavirus outbreak first surfaced more than four months ago, in December 2019. Surely our government did not believe that India would be a ‘bubble’ that would escape the imminent pandemic. Which is why it is hard to understand why it did not plan for these children.

Why Should Only Juvenile Delinquents Be Sent Home & Not Kids in Special Homes?

It is also not clear why only children in conflict with the law must be sent back home, if it’s living in close proximity inside institutions that is the cause of concern. After all, there are more children living in children’s homes than in Observation Homes and Special Homes.

What would it mean (even by estimates that are two years old and none available for now) to move 3,70,227 children from 9589 CCI/Homes? Of these 7422 are children in conflict with the law (CICL) and 9589 are children in need of care and protection(CNCP) (as defined in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act 2015 (JJAct).

Making lists and releasing them, as ordered by the NCPCR, is definitely not the way to deal with the current crisis. To implement the provisions of the JJAct, there is a need to ensure a home-study, needs assessment, and a care plan for each child.

Otherwise, sooner than later, we may witness yet another ‘nation-wide cry’ to amend the JJAct to make it more punitive, because, in the absence of the required intervention, some child may have re-offended.

We must not forget that the purpose behind setting up the JJ system is reform, and therefore there must be no compromise with that objective. For that, we need well-planned alternatives. The CNCP too need care plans and home studies before they can be ‘de-institutionalised’.

How to Safeguard Children Who Can’t Be Released?

Recognising that children in detention in overcrowded and under-resourced institutions would be in grave danger from the COVID-19 pandemic, international organisations – the UN as well as INGOs (International NGOs) – have recommended decongesting children’s facilities by sending them back home and, where needed, even introducing ‘community sentencing’. Furthermore, they have recommended children's safe reintegration into families and communities.

In rare cases where children cannot be released, states have been asked to implement measures to safeguard children’s health. Unfortunately, in India, we just never paid heed to them.

If Kalpana Purshottam, a member of the Juvenile Justice Board in Bangalore (Urban), along with her Board, recognising the dangers of keeping children inside a facility, could plan the downsizing of the number of children in the Observation Home in Madiwala, there was nothing to stop the Government of India from doing the same.

Did the government really have to wait for a Supreme Court order during a lockdown, and the consequent chaos it unleashed, to turn its attention to the children in its care?

Given that we are in the middle of a pandemic that has been exacerbated into a disaster by lack of planning and mismanagement, we need to plan ahead.

Urgent Need for Case-By-Case, Nuanced Approach to Child Care Amidst Corona

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines are clear: “The plan should take into account the socio-cultural realities of the state, and should be equity based – recognising the differential needs of all sections of the society, including marginalised groups such as the elderly, pregnant and lactating mothers, children, physically and mentally challenged persons, etc...”. Indeed, this is just what is needed.

The entire child protection machinery, that ought to have been in place under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, needs to be mobilised immediately to identify and support vulnerable children, as should the health and other services. This is true for children in institutional care and outside.

There is an urgent need for case-by-case, location-by-location, nuanced approach for children in institutions. While sending a children back to the families may be the best option for some, it may not be true for all.

Sending a child back to a family that itself faces the threat of hunger and homelessness, will only add to its existing pressure.

This is likely to manifest in the form of stigmatisation or violence against the ‘returning’ child. For the time being therefore, such children will need to be provided for and kept safe in the children’s home/observation home. Longer term de-institutionalisation plans can carry on simultaneously.

COVID-19 Is An Emergency – Essential Services, Including Justice, Must Reach the Child

For children of migrants, and those who live in precarious conditions, lack of resources in families is bound to affect their health, making them vulnerable to not just the virus, but also to malnutrition and even diarrhoea.

We often forget that children are not a homogenous category. They have age-specific requirements.

The support required for an infant is not the same as that for an adolescent child. Children with disabilities require specific needs to be fulfilled. These services will have to be reached to them, as reducing mobility is the key to safety during this pandemic.

It is well known that disasters and emergencies invariably lead to an increase in violence and abuse. COVID-19 is an emergency, no less. The lockdown makes it hard to report or access justice. Since the child and the family may not be able to reach the child protection services, the services have to reach the child. Mobility of child protection personnel therefore becomes imperative under these circumstances.

In a Crisis Like COVID-19, Transparency & Forward Planning Can Mitigate Trauma

This will require money and resources. Our only hope, the frontline workers – be they health workers or child protection workers – must be provided with basic health care support and personal protective equipment (PPE). This will happen only when the state recognises the importance of focussing on children.

Indeed, there are no easy answers. There never are in a crisis like this. But some forward planning and transparency can definitely mitigate the trauma.

As a child, I often heard my mother quote a Bengali proverb – aage haatle, chor o poth paye (if he starts walking early, the thief too can find an escape route). In English we were told “a stitch in time saves nine”. We know this virus is not leaving our shores in a hurry. But we can certainly protect our children if we act now. It’s high time we started.

(Enakshi Ganguly is a human rights activist. She tweets @enakshihaq. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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