PATTAPUR, India — More than 3,000 Indian children have been orphaned during the pandemic, according to state governments. They are a heart-rending testament to the devastation brought on families as the coronavirus has erased hundreds of thousands of lives across the country.
Even with all that has been lost, the orphans’ plight has punctured the public consciousness, an acknowledgment of the profound challenges facing a country already full of vulnerable children.
Indian states have announced compensation of about $7 to $68 per month for each orphan, along with promises of food and free education. Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed in a tweet to “ensure a life of dignity and opportunity” for these children.
But advocates fear that when the attention inevitably fades, the orphans will be left susceptible to neglect and exploitation.
Already, the children, traumatized in some cases from the loss of their entire families, have found it difficult to obtain death certificates to qualify for government benefits. Some also will find it hard to return to school.
[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]
In the longer term, the many orphans from poor families in remote areas face the risk of human trafficking and child marriage. Trafficking of children is rampant in India, where they are enslaved for work or sex, and the country has the largest number of child brides in the world, according to UNICEF.
Adoption is not an option for many of the orphans, given cultural taboos against the practice. Older children often cannot be matched with adoptive families.
“The government is trying to save its face as the catastrophic tragedy ravaged India,” said Medha Pande, a law student at Delhi University who has written about socio-legalissues arising from the pandemic.
“They came out looking unprepared,” she added. “They are just creating a subgroup out of a larger group of vulnerable children, saying they can easily look after them.”
On a recent morning, officials in the village of Pattapur, in Odisha state, arrived at G. Sonali Reddy’s home, where the 14-year-old serves as caretaker after her mother Sabita’s death from covid-19.
The officials were to deliver an “orphan pension” to the children, enough money to last for the summer. Bank accounts were opened in their names, and officials dropped off large bags of rice.
Sonali listened carefully as they rattled off a list of instructions for using her bank account. Her siblings — Jagabalia, 8, and Bhabana, 5 — looked on listlessly, clutching their sister’s blue dress.
Even before her mother’s death, the family had a meager existence. Newly widowed, Sabita Reddy opened a small snack shop in the front room of their home. She spent what little money she had to provide after-school study for her oldest child.
With her father gone, Sonali was especially close to her mother.
“My siblings beg me: ‘We want to go to mummy,’” Sonali said as she fiddled with her thumbs. “When our father passed away, we thought, ‘At least mummy is there.’ Now, the virus has taken her away, too.”
In the dusty plains of northern India, Shawez Saifi, 18, finds himself sniffing back tears in the dark of night, when his sister jolts awake, screaming for their mother.
Their parents, Shamshad and Shabnam Saifi, became sick in April, and Shawez Saifi took them to a doctor, who recommended a coronavirus test. But with little money to go around from the dwindling work that father and son did on construction sites, Shabnam Saifi suggested that they return to their home in Murad Nagar to recuperate.
The children slept on the veranda outside their one-room shack while the parents locked themselves inside. After their condition quickly worsened, they moved to a relative’s house. A few days later, Shabnam Saifi was dead. Her husband died a few days after that.
When Shawez Saifi, who had given up his studies to work with his father, returned home without his parents, the landlord had locked them out, saying he would give them the key only after the rent was paid. His uncle borrowed money to cover some of the debt so that Shawez Saifi and his siblings could collect their belongings.
Shawez Saifi’s younger sister, Kahkashan, 9, has been hit the hardest. Nearly every day, she picks up the phone and dials her mother, talking to her as if she were on the other end.
“Mother, when will you come? I miss you,” she says on the calls.
“My only dream is to educate my siblings,” Shawez Saifi said.
“My mother would call me when I would be out for work and ask, ‘Son, it is getting late. When will you come home?’ Now no one will call me anymore,” he said.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .