COVID-19 has devastated many lives and it is 'heart wrenching' that the survival of children who lost either or both parents during the pandemic is at stake, the Supreme Court said, but expressed satisfaction over schemes announced by the Centre and states to provide succour to them.
The apex court said that 'satisfactory progress' has been made by the Executive in identifying children who have either become orphans or have lost one of their parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
'We are glad that the UoI (Union of India) and the state governments/Union Territories have announced schemes to provide succour to the children in need.
'We have no doubt that the authorities concerned would leave no stone unturned to attend to the immediate basic needs of the crestfallen children,' said a bench of justices L Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose.
The top court, which was hearing a suo motu matter on 'Contagion of COVID-19 on children protection homes', noted in its order that over one lakh children have lost either or both parents during the pandemic.
'The catastrophe caused by the cataclysmic COVID-19 has devastated many lives, especially children at a tender age who have lost their parents,' the bench said, adding that 'it is heart wrenching to note that the survival of so many children is at stake'.
It said inquiries by Child Welfare Committee (CWCs), in accordance with provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, have to be expedited to identify those children who are in need of care and protection.
Immediate steps also have to be taken to ensure that benefits of schemes reach the needy minors, the bench said.
The apex court said all children have a constitutional right to free and compulsory elementary education and the State has a duty and obligation to facilitate education for children.
'We have no doubt that the State realizes the importance of continuance of education of the forlorn children,' the bench said in its August 26 order.
The bench noted the submissions of Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre, that education of eligible children up to 18 years is sought to be provided for under the 'PM CARES for Children' scheme launched for support and empowerment of COVID-19 affected children.
Bhati told the bench that 2,600 children eligible for benefits under the scheme have been registered by states and out of these, 418 applications have been approved by district magistrates.
The bench directed district magistrates to complete the process of approval of applications of the remaining children whose names have been registered for the 'PM CARES' scheme.
'In case of necessity, fee and other expenditure of the 2,600 children, whose names have been registered for the 'PM CARES for Children' scheme, shall be taken care of by the government of India,' it said.
The bench said for children, who have lost either or both parents after March last year, state governments shall confer with private schools to waive the fee of distressed children for the current academic year.
'In case, the private institutions are unwilling to effectuate such waiver, the state government shall shoulder the burden of the fee,' the court said, adding, 'In respect of those children amongst the 2,600 registered under the 'PM CARES for Children scheme', it is open to state governments to request the government of India to bear the fee and other expenses pertaining to their education, for the current academic year.'
While perusing state-wise details placed before it, the bench said after completion of inquiries, CWCs may identify those children who do not need care and protection, and financial assistance from the states.
'Such of those children need not be given the benefits that are announced by the state governments. It is only those children who are in need of care and protection, in terms of the (Juvenile Justice) Act, who have to be provided with assistance by the state governments,' it said.
The bench has posted the matter for further hearing on October 7.
In an additional affidavit filed last week, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) had told the apex court that over one lakh children are in need of care and protection as they are either orphan, have lost one of their parents or were abandoned during the pandemic since April last year.
According to information uploaded on the 'Bal Swaraj' portal by states and Union Territories, there are 8,161 children who have become orphans, 92,475 have lost either of their parents and 396 have been abandoned between April 1, 2020 to August 23 this year.
The apex court had earlier passed a slew of directions for care and protection of children who have become orphans or have lost one parent or were abandoned during the pandemic.