By Sreedev Krishnakumar
M Guruprasad who runs a child care institution (CCI) in Bangalore says that he found it difficult to get even the proper amount of food during the last one and half years. Before the pandemic began, there were 2,27,518 children staying in 9,589 CCIs in India. As costs increased and donations reduced, CCIs — like the one that Guruprasad runs — say that they had to struggle to survive the pandemic.
CCIs acts as a temporary residence for children that are in need of care and protection until they can be properly rehabilitated. This includes children who are orphaned, from impoverished families, and victims of trafficking, among others. According to a 2018 report by the Ministry of Women & Child Development which has the latest data available for Maharashtra, the state has more than 58,000 children staying within its 1,284 CCIs.
Before the pandemic, children staying in CCIs could go to public schools near to them. As Covid-19 moved classes online, education has become difficult for these children. “Most of these institutions cannot afford the costs to set up infrastructure for online education, including things like smartphones and high speed internet.” said Satyajeet Mazumdar, a lawyer and child rights activist working with Catalysts for Social Action.
“We didn’t get any funding from the government,” said Vasant Kunjar who runs a CCI in Navi Mumbai. Girija Balgruha, the institution run by Kunjar, has 30 children from critical backgrounds residing in it. In the absence of governmental support, they had to raise funds for buying smartphones by other means. The institution received around eight smartphones as donations from private cultural organisations. Kunjar had to dip into his personal savings to buy five more.
“The children lost around 3-4 months of education during the second wave,” said Guruprasad. Shine Children’s Home, the CCI that he runs, provides residence to 25 children from destitute families. They have only been able to manage enough funds to acquire six smartphones for online classes. Each device is shared between four kids. The institution has also been having network issues. “We often get no network and when the service provider is called to get it fixed, they take a long time to respond.”
Not just the infrastructure for online education, even basic amenities were hard to acquire during the pandemic for Shine Children’s Home. “I had to spend the little amount of savings I had to get things like food,” said Guruprasad. During the second wave, Guruprasad had to go from one house to another of those willing to donate, for the sake of the one or two sacks of rice or other grains that they might give.
Although it is only supposed to be a temporary residence, data suggests that most children who are sent to CCIs spent their childhood within the institution itself. According to the available records, there were 41,730 orphaned children staying in CCIs across India in 2018, only 3,559 of them found themselves adopted during the 2019-2020 period. The number of children adopted per year has remained around 3,000 for several years now.
As the pandemic began, CCIs quarantined their residents and staff. Contact with those outside was minimised other than to get things that are essential. “Even us, the staff, stayed in the orphanage only and did not go out to avoid the risk of getting infected by Covid,” said Kunjar. This isolation exacerbated the mental stress that the children face. “These children only had limited interaction with the outside world even before. The pandemic confined them into these institutions, and we have seen cases where this has caused mental health issues in the children,” commented Mazumdar.
Amid the pandemic, in October 2020, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights sent a directive asking for children with at least one parent, staying in CCIs, to be sent back to their family within a month. Child rights activists criticised this move as it could result in children being sent back to their family without doing the due process.
The Supreme Court took up a suo moto case to examine the directive. “Although the order was revoked, several children had already been sent back to their families. If a child came into a CCI because his family is facing extreme poverty and cannot take care of him, sending him back during a pandemic would only make things worse,” explained Mazumdar.
According to the data submitted by NCPCR to the Supreme Court, 1,45,788 children, who were staying in CCIs across India, were sent back to their families since the beginning of the pandemic. The Court ordered all states to also give Rs 2000 to those children who were sent back to their families.
Both Girija Balgruha and Shine Children’s Home chose not to send back any child to their families during the pandemic. But they also could not take in any new child, as they did not have the capacity to do so.
Amongst CCIs, those in rural areas were impacted more severely than the ones in cities like Mumbai. “They used to mainly receive individual donations from nearby residents, mostly in the form of commodities and grains like rice. Such donations stopped during the pandemic,” said Mazumdar, “Ninety percent of CCIs functioning in India are privately owned and only 30-40% of them get funding from the government. Even those who do receive public funding receive them in the form of reimbursements, which is quite uncertain,” he added. According to the Ministry of Women & Child Development, almost 57% of CCIs receive funds through individual donations.
CCIs that do receive public funding receives it in the form of a fixed sum of Rs 2000 from the Integrated Child Protection Scheme by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. This amount becomes insufficient when the extra expenditures that CCIs had to incur during the pandemic are factored in.
“We saw a reduction of around 50-60% in donations since the pandemic began,” stated Guruprasad. Before the pandemic, Shine Children’s Home used to get around one lakh as donations every month. But after the pandemic began, this has gone down to around 30 thousand per month. “For almost four months during the second wave, we couldn’t even reach 30 thousand in donations. Since everyone was going through a bad time, we didn’t have many people to ask.”
According to Mazumdar, this trend has also been observed in the 87 CCIs that his organisation works with, making it harder for these institutions to cover their costs. “Their capability to raise funds have dropped,” he observed.