Estimating the impact of Covid-19 on children, the United Nations has observed that in some cases ‘mitigation measures may inadvertently do more harm than good’ and for some children, the impact will be lifelong. Among those hardest hit are children belonging to socio-economically backward and marginalised communities. The UNICEF has reckoned that 120 million children could fall into extreme poverty and an additional 3.9 million children could suffer from malnourishment in South Asia attributable to causes related to Covid-19.
Noting these impacts, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued an ‘Advisory for Protection of the Rights of Children in the context of Covid-19’in late September of 2019 which though lookedcomprehensive, however, falls tooshort of incorporating a rights-based response.
Left out children
The recommendations completely ignore the extreme vulnerabilities attached to international displacements, i.e., children of refugees, stateless persons, undocumented migrants, and asylum seekers (children of ‘people of concern’). According to UNHCR 92019), 207,334 people of concernare residing in India. These individuals often lack access to mainstream social protection schemes due totenuous legal status. As reported by UNICEF, 50 per cent migrant and refugee respondents in the age groups of 14-24 years indicated challenges in accessing healthcare. Albeit, India allows refugees to approach public health care facilities but weak governance, social stigma and discrimination inhibit such access. Besides, access is only allowed for ‘registered’ refugees, thereby precluding innumerable people of concern from availing healthcare.
Further, the advisory does not address the socio-economic needs ofchildren becoming orphan due to Covid-19. Studies estimate that theglobal toll of Covid-19 could reach 40 million, inevitably leaving many children without primary caregivers. Orphanhood(arising out of pandemics such as Ebola, HIV, AIDS) has had a direct nexus with exploitation—sexual and non-sexual, emotional distress, psychosocial outcomes and child labour.
Non-Universalisation of nutritional services
Another critical issue is non-recognition of universal access to nutritional services for children outside the ICDS ecosystem. The requirement to update PDS to include children born after 2011 is a welcome move.However, according to population projections,108 million Indians do not appear on the list of NFSA ration cardsas of 2020. Updating millions of ration cards is a mammoth task, especially in an ongoing pandemic.In many states, applications for ration cards are pending in lakhs – in Jharkhand alone, 7 lakh applications are pending. More importantly, even if PDS rolls are updated, a substantial number of marginalised children will still be excluded from it, for reasons ranging from identification barriers to bureaucraticimpediments. The fact that those who are not covered under PDS will be catered by community kitchens is erroneous since only five states run these kitchens.
Who’s protecting children from a data breach?
With widespread lockdown and social distancing norms, Covid-19 has impacted 90 per cent of the student population. More than ever, children are using the internet for learning purposes, socialisation and other activities, largely unaware that they are putting at risk their personal data. If this data is breached, it can potentially harm children in the long term. Yet, the advisory is silent on protecting children’s data at the hands of ed-tech companies, video streaming platforms etc.
Data breach in case of children is not uncommon. Recently Unacademy, one of the largest ed-tech companies in India reported a data breach of 22 million users, mostly school-going children. As Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is pending before the Parliament, currently, there is no law regulating the collection and processing of data from children. Taking cognizance on a plea stating that there isn't any law governing age eligibility for accessing social media in India, the Supreme Court has recently issued notice to the central government seeking its response on the matter. However,the situation clamours a detailed protocol.
Lack of economic and social rehabilitation measures
Apart from food and health, distressed children require economic and social support. The biggest limitation of the recent government advisory is that it does not provide any additional economic or social rehabilitation support to marginalised children.Such measures include social security benefits like vocational training, skill development, cash assistance, setting up shelters etc.Law enforcement alone will not curtail child marriages, child labour or trafficking. We must keep in mind that in a pandemic setting, children are driven to these precarious conditions owing to financial challenges faced by their families. In Sierra Leone during Ebola, 43% ofchildren wereengaged in child labour while girls turned to transactional sex to support their families.
Many countries are providing aid to children. The USA, for instance, has pledged$45 million specifically for prevention of family violence and responsive services for children. Such measures can be enacted in India too, for which the funds can be mobilised from various cess funds lying unutilised such as Construction Workers Cess Fund and District Mineral Funds.
Covid-19 is an unprecedented crisis and requires unprecedented solutions. The advisory issued by NHRC is a beacon of hope, but unless the loopholes are fixed, the possibility of protecting India’s children is still a distant dream.
(Dr. Amar Patnaik is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha; a former CAG bureaucrat with a Master in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore and the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and an academic with a PhD in management. Views expressed are personal.)