Identify children left in distress by COVID-19, Supreme Court tells Tamil Nadu

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The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Tamil Nadu government to expedite and complete the process of identifying COVID-affected children in order to take care of their immediate basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing and produce them before the local Child Welfare Committees to assess steps for their future protection.

The top court is suo motu monitoring a nationwide exercise to identify children orphaned, abandoned and in need of care and protection due to COVID-19 pandemic.

A Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose said records placed before the court show “zero number of children produced before the Child Welfare Committees (CWC) in most districts” in the State.

In some cases, there was a “stark difference” between the number of children identified as in distress and the number subsequently produced before the CWCs.

Tamil Nadu came into focus when amicus curiae, advocate Gaurav Agrawal, highlighted the method of identification of these children adopted in the State.

“It is a top-down approach. The State looks at the official figures of death and sees if there are any children in these families in need of care and protection. But this approach may not help identify all the children in need of care… The Chief Minister has announced several schemes for the welfare of these children, but they would not be effective unless they cover all the children left in distress by the pandemic,” Mr. Agrawal submitted.

For example, the court referred to records before them and said 142 children were found in distress in Coimbatore while only one was produced before the CWC.

“And Coimbatore is the next biggest and cosmopolitan city in Tamil Nadu,” Justice Rao addressed advocate Joseph Aristotle, appearing for Tamil Nadu.

Of the 168 children identified in Kancheepuram district, not even one child was produced before the CWC.

In comparison, the court referred to how Ramanathapuram, a relatively backward district in the State, identified 48 COVID-affected children, of which 33 were produced before the CWC and provided care and protection.

“When such action was done there, same pattern should be followed across the State…” Justice Rao said.

The court, however, clarified that it was not blaming the State government at a time when the official machinery was focussed on trying to bring the pandemic infection under control.

“But you need to activate institutions like CWCs etc., and spend more time and energy for children, who are definitely in distress,” Justice Rao said.

Mr. Aristotle detailed the welfare schemes for these children. He submitted that ₹5 lakh each would be deposited for children orphaned by COVID-19. These children would receive the amount at the age of 18. Similarly, ₹3 lakh would be granted to children who have lost one of their parents. There is also a scheme to provide ₹3,000 monthly towards the expenses of the children. The State has announced a scheme to take care of the educational requirements of these children.

“Yes, but you have to start off with identifying them… That is the threshold. Please instruct them [officials] to expedite the identification process. It has to be completed immediately,” Justice Rao said.

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