Out of the 20 million orphans in India, less than 1% are in orphanages. 117 districts in India do not have a single orphanage. (Source: MWCD Trackchild-Child Care Institutions in 2015). However, even those who make it there aren’t any better off.
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A glaring example of this came to light in May 2018 when young girls between the ages of 7-17 suffered rampant sexual abuse over many months at an orphanage in Muzaffarpur, Bihar.
Additionally, orphanages arbitrate over giving these children a name, caste certificate and everything else. Maharashtra is currently the only state in India that does this, in addition to providing orphans with a 1 per cent reservation in government jobs.
Since its inception in 2009, the mandate of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS, which is now called Child Protection Services or CPS) under the Government of India was to protect these vulnerable children. However, the coverage of this program has been less than 1 lakh children per year.
The Annual Report of MWCD for 2017-18 includes a table (Page 72):
In the 2018-19 budget, the total allocation to CPS was Rs 725 crores, which is less than Re 1 per child per day. For the previous financial year, it was Rs 648 crore and for 2019-20, the figure stands at Rs 1500 crore.
Meet Poulomi Shukla, a 26-year-old advocate, who filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in July 2018 seeking judicial intervention to ensure that these children are guaranteed the Right to Life, Right to Education and Right to Equality.
“The government considers a large section of people as socially, economically and educationally deprived (SCs, STs, OBCs, BPL). By not giving orphans the same benefits as youngsters from these communities, you’re saying that a child with parents is weaker than one left on the street. This is illogical,” says Poulomi, speaking to The Better India.
“Legally speaking, the Mandal Commission had listed 11 criteria to declare a class of people as OBCs, and any community which fulfils more than half of those yardsticks will be declared OBC. Orphans are the only class of people who fulfil it by 100%. So, shouldn’t they at least get the same benefits as other OBCs are getting?” she argues.
Poulomi is seeking reservations for orphans in educational institutions and government jobs. Besides, she wants them to get a slice of state-sponsored scholarships and benefits given to students from SC/ST/OBC communities.
These benefits range from pre-matric and post-matric scholarships, admission in private schools under RTE Act, tuition coaching for competitive exams and job interviews, seed money for self-employment, loans at concessional rates and credit for budding entrepreneurs, amongst others.
As per the Annual Report of the Ministry of Social Justice 2018-19 records, the expenditure in 2018-19 on Post-Matric Scholarships for SCs stood at Rs 5928 crores, while it was Rs 1,000.45 crore for OBCs. In addition to Rs 237.47 crores for Pre Matric scholarships for SC/ST/OBC, the total expenditure on scholarships on OBC/SC/ST children in 2018-19 stood at of Rs 7165.95 crores.
“Orphans aren’t eligible for any of it. By the time they reach the age of 18, they have to pretty much fend for themselves. For children with the benefits for reservations, they have parents who will at least attempt to look out for them. Orphans have no one,” she explains.
But why does this lawyer care so much?
Ever since she was 10 years old, Poulomi has been working with orphans. First introduced to them by her mother, an IAS officer, who oversaw the admission of children into orphanages across Haridwar, Uttarakhand, following the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat, she understood very early in life how difficult it is for them.
But she also didn’t know what she could do to help.
“I could get them donations or food from outside, but nothing beyond. Once I finished college, I travelled across 11 states visiting orphanages, documenting their state of affairs and speaking to various stakeholders. Following my travels, I wrote a book ‘Weakest on Earth – Orphans of India’, which was published in November 2015. The book even received an endorsement by a former Judge of the Supreme Court, Justice VS Sirpurkar. Initially, I tried petitioning governments, but I encountered a lot of inertia. That’s when I went to court,” she recalls.
What can ordinary people do?
“Apart from donations and food, give them your time and attention. Even if you make an effort to visit an orphanage once or twice a month, you will hold them accountable because they know you’re coming to see these children and ensure they receive basic benefits as promised. You can also go beyond—sponsor their education, help them buy school books or get them internships. If you see a child begging on the street, find out if they are orphans and take them to the necessary authorities,” she concludes.
Poulomi’s efforts to ensure that the larger populace acknowledges orphans and grants them the same institutional attention as children from historically deprived communities are praiseworthy, and will hopefully go on to ensure that they do not remain India’s forgotten citizens anymore.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)