Governance

Protecting children during pandemic requires much more than ‘PM CARES for Children’ package 

The scheme is an emergency measure and cannot substitute the established sevices for children

 
By Simonti Chakraborty,
Published: Thursday 28 October 2021
Protecting children during pandemic requires much more than ‘PM CARES for Children’ package. Photo: Kundan Pandey

The experience of the last one-and-a-half years of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has thrown up several questions on the framework of child protection in India. One of the most unfortunate fallouts of the pandemic and its wide array of restrictions, has been the increased vulnerability of children to multiple forms of abuse and deprivation. 

There has been a visible rise in instances of violence against children (including home-based abuse) during the lockdown, with as much as a 50 per cent surge in the number of calls to Childline India, a helpline service run by a non-profit.

A survey-based study in 2020 by the child rights NGO Save the Children found that children from poorer migrant households faced more instances of violence at home. Further, the second wave of COVID-19 has left many children without both or one of their parents. It exposed them to uncertainty, financial hardships and greater risk of exploitation, child labour and trafficking.

Shrinking budgets for child protection

The Union Budget of 2021-22 was expected to address these rising concerns with higher budgets for child protection. However, this budget witnessed a whopping 40 per cent decrease in the allocations for the flagship scheme on child protection, Mission VATSALYA (formerly Integrated Child Protection Scheme, or ICPS) from last year, raising serious concerns from experts

The meagre allocation of Rs 900 crore under this umbrella scheme is now expected to cover the entire gamut of child protection and child welfare services that the government offers. Further, outlays for the key intervention against child labour, the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) has also remained stagnant at Rs 120 crore over the last two years.

Allocations and expenditure in major schemes for child protection (in Rs crore)

 

(A) is Actual Expenditure, (RE) is Revised Estimates and (BE) is Budget Estimates

Source: Compiled from Union Budget Documents of various years

Funding has remained a persistent problem in the domain of child protection, with as little as 0.03 per cent of the total Union Budget in 2021-22 being kept aside for it.  It is not just child protection; total outlays for child-focused interventions have reduced by 11 per cent this year. 

Needless to say, this will also shrink the resources available with the states, which are primarily responsible for implementing several major schemes for children. 

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development, in its 2020 report, had recognised the need for a higher share of allocations for the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) to cater to, not only protection related issues, but other welfare aspects of women and children. 

Role of PM CARES for Children

The only major announcement for children by the Government of India, in the last one and half years, has been the PM CARES for Children package. It is aimed at providing support to children who have lost both their parents, the surviving parent or the legal guardian / adoptive parents to COVID-19. 

Apart from covering educational and healthcare facilities for children, it promises to create a corpus of Rs 10 lakh through fixed deposit in the name of the beneficiary. This corpus will then be used to give out monthly stipends after the individual reaches the age of 18 years for the following five years. Once they are 23 years of age, the corpus amount will be made entirely available to them. 

The package, however, is completely silent on addressing exploitation and violence against children. It doesn’t also talk about the counselling needed to address the psychological impact of losing parents due to the pandemic. 

In short, neither the Union Budget nor the financial package seemed to have attached any priority to the emerging need for protecting children from higher exposure to trauma, abuse and violence during the crisis period. 

It is not only the loss of parents but a number of other factors like loss of income opportunities of parents, reduced food security, school closure, which contribute to a child’s increased vulnerability. 

Apart from several other procedural gaps in the design of this intervention, the fact that donations constitute the sole source of financing for it raises questions on the long term sustainability of the initiative. 

For how long this measure will be continued by the government and what will be the monitoring mechanism to ensure that regular payments reach the intended beneficiaries for a prolonged period of five years also remains unclear. 

Moreover, the promise of an assured and regular monthly stipend after reaching adulthood might not enable many from modest backgrounds to tide over their immediate financial needs after being left without parents. 

Flagship schemes crucial during & beyond pandemic

‘PM CARES for Children’ falls in line with the general push of the government in recent times towards interventions involving direct cash transfers. In contrast, schemes like ICPS that are geared towards delivery of crucial services are being neglected. 

ICPS covers preventive, statutory care and rehabilitation of ‘children in need of care and protection’ and ‘children in conflict with law’ under the overall framework of the Juvenile Justice Act. Its implementation suffers from many shortcomings, such as poor infrastructural facilities of child care institutes, large number of vacancies of child care personnel posts and lack of proper training for them. 

But even with these systemic issues, service delivery interventions are both necessary and important when a dependent population group like children are the intended beneficiaries. The existing infrastructure of ICPS caters to over 370,000 children residing in over 9,500 child care institutes (CCI) across the country, according to a 2018 study by MWCD, and this number is only expected to rise during the pandemic.

The need of the hour is to strengthen and expand the existing ecosystem of child protection with higher budgetary commitments and improved utilisation of resources in schemes like ICPS and NCLP. 

Special focus has to be on:

  • Improving the infrastructure of CCIs
  • Increasing low unit cost of Rs 2,160 as a monthly maintenance grant for a child residing in these CCIs
  • Plugging the human resource shortages 
  • Imparting proper training to these personnel to cater effectively to the needs of children. 

The conditional cash transfer plan under ‘PM CARES for Children’ is an appreciated intervention in these difficult times. It, however, is an emergency measure and must assume a supplementary role to the service delivery model under already established schemes and cannot become a substitute for them.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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