Diwali was a dud. Birthdays are now scaled-down affairs. The food is moody: rarely good, mostly passable, and sometimes outright bad. And then there are the fights — loud, screechy ones that threaten to go out of hand. But there are some consolations: “At least we are there for each other.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the world, snuffing out lives and livelihoods, it made an unwelcome stop at the household of the Mathurs — twice. Kajal, 16, Muskaan, 14, and Sumit, 13, lost both their parents to the coronavirus in a space of 11 months. Their father Udayveer died of Covid in May 2020 and mother Santoshi in April 2021, leaving the three children all alone in a big city full of people, forcing them to be grown-ups, except this was no pretend play and no fun at all.
At their second-floor house in an unauthorised colony in Sangam Vihar Delhi, sitting on the double bed that fills up the room, Kajal, flanked by Muskaan and Sumit, says, “There’s not a single day we don’t think of mummy-papa.”
According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, around 1.53 lakh children across India were orphaned by the end of two deadly waves of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, a period marked by all-round death and despair, forcing governments and the judiciary to sit up and take note. The Centre and state governments rolled out a string out measures — from scholarships and health insurance under the PM Cares scheme to Delhi’s ‘Mukhyamantri Covid-19 Pariwar Aarthik Sahayta Yojana’, under which a monthly assistance of Rs 2,500 and an ex-gratia assistance of Rs 50,000 was provided to affected families.
In the national Capital, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), the nodal agency for implementing these measures, had traced and identified around 3,600 children who lost either or both their parents to Covid.
DCPCR chairperson Anurag Kundu says that in the case of children without guardians or where relatives didn’t want to take them in, the state government had worked to facilitate their admission to shelter homes.
Soon after their parents died of Covid, Kajal and her siblings got themselves registered at the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), from where they have been getting a financial assistance of Rs 2,500 per month. They also received a sum of Rs 50,000 as a one-time ex-gratia payment under the Delhi government’s Covid-19 scheme.
Since December last year, Ladli Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO, has been supporting the siblings with their house rent and other expenditure, including books.
It was in May 2020 that their father Udayveer, who worked as a mechanic at a nearby shop, came down with fever. “It began as a mild fever. And then his condition worsened. No hospital was ready to admit him. Finally, he was admitted to a hospital in Malviya Nagar. He died 15 days later,” says Kajal.
That was during the first wave of the pandemic, when the virus forced people indoors, fearful and distrustful of each other, and locked down the entire country. “When my father died of Covid, the landlord asked us to vacate the house. He was afraid he would get the virus. He asked my chacha (uncle) to take us away. My uncle requested him to let us stay but he was adamant that we leave,” says Kajal.
The grieving family shifted to another house, but with the only earning member gone, the mother and the children struggled to stay afloat. “Mummy said papa had left behind some savings, and that would see us through some time. She tried to find work, but couldn’t because of the lockdown,” says Kajal, adding that she briefly dropped out of school and joined back in August this year. Muskaan and Sumit, meanwhile, struggled with their online classes that they attended on the phone their father had left behind.
And then, 11 months later, tragedy struck again — at the height of the second wave of the pandemic. “My mother fell ill. It began with loose motions and then she developed tuberculosis. She was being treated for that when she fell ill with Covid. My uncle and I took her to several hospitals – one in Noida Sector 10, another in Gurgaon, but she didn’t survive,” says Kajal.
With their mother gone, their landlord, worried that the children may not be able to pay the monthly rent, asked them to vacate the flat. “Initially, they made it difficult for us… didn’t give us enough water and so on. Finally, one of our friends in the locality helped us move to this house,” says Kajal, adding that they pay a rent of Rs 3,500 for the one-room-kitchen flat.
She says that after her mother’s death, their uncle’s family tried to get the children to go back to their village in Mathura, where their grandfather lives. “We have grown up in Delhi; we didn’t want to go to our village. We asked our grandfather if he could come and stay with us, but he didn’t want to. So we stayed back,” says Kajal.
Moving to a children’s home in Delhi wasn’t an option either. “When we first went to the CWC office, they tried to send us to a shelter home, saying the area we live in is not safe. I started crying. I didn’t want to be separated from Muskaan and Sumit. Finally, I had my way,” Kajal adds.
“Mummy and papa” watch over them from an A4-size family photograph that hangs from a nail on a wall facing their bed – “so that we can see them when we open our eyes in the morning”. In the photograph, Santoshi is dressed in a bright orange salwar suit, the dupatta covering her head, while Udayveer is in a checked shirt.
“I miss papa,” smiles Kajal. “He never scolded us. Of course, I miss mummy too. She would lose her temper occasionally, especially if we didn’t do our homework on time or if the house wasn’t tidy. But see how neat the house is…we have learnt fast.”
The siblings have well-defined roles around the house – “Muskaan and I cook lunch and dinner together and Sumit is in charge of the groceries. Amit makes his own breakfast since we have to go to school early; his classes start only in the afternoon,” says Kajal.
Students of Delhi government’s Bachhan Prasad Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Kajal is Class 10, Muskaan in Class 8 and Sumit in Class 7.
Ritu Barella, Kajal’s Hindi teacher, says she wasn’t regular when the school held online classes last year or when it opened briefly earlier this year. “I finally managed to get in touch with Kajal, and that’s when we got to know that both her parents had passed away and she was taking care of her younger siblings. All the teachers then decided to help Kajal get back to school,” she says.
“During the pandemic, Muskaan was eligible for dry ration – wheat, pulses, rice and oil. So we would send them that and add a little extra whenever we could. This year, the dry ration facility stopped, but we try and help the children financially as much as we can,” says Ritu.
The teacher says the academic performance of the children, however, remains a challenge.
“Kajal has only been attending tests and exams, her attendance is still irregular. All three of them are bright and hardworking students, but they are in a challenging situation and we are trying our best to support them,” says Ritu.
Kajal agrees with her teacher’s assessment – “I am trying, though,” she sighs.
Devendra Kumar, CEO and founder of Ladli Foundation, says the NGO is planning to empower Kajal by getting her to teach younger kids in a slum close to their house. “That way, she will gain some confidence and learn to be self-reliant. We plan to provide her a stipend too,” says Kumar.
These are other situations, Kajal says, when she feels lost. “Especially when Muskaan and Sumit fight and it ends with one of them crying and saying they miss mummy and papa. I don’t know what to do then and I cry too. I cried a lot after my parents went away. It was a very tough time… We also had problems with some of my relatives. Since then, we have only been in touch with our chacha and dadaji.”
It’s in moments such as these that she misses her father. “He would solve all our problems, encourage us to study…,” Kajal says, adding that he wanted her to become an IPS officer.
Festivals and birthdays, she says, aren’t the same. “Now we have to do everything – cooking to cleaning. Earlier, our parents would get us new clothes for Diwali, mummy would make kachoris. This Diwali, I took some money from my savings and bought some sweets and a pair of clothes each of Muskaan and Sumit. I wore mummy’s sari. I thought I looked a lot like mummy,” she says.
Kajal says she has stopped celebrating her birthdays but they celebrated Sumit’s birthday in August this year. “We didn’t invite anyone. We got a small cake for him and made poori sabzi at home. This time, Muskaan fell sick on her birthday on April 1 so we did not celebrate hers.”
The children say they avoid eating out. “Earlier, we used to ask mummy-papa for pizzas and burgers… But now I miss mummy’s food. On days that we feel like eating something special, we watch YouTube and try out some easy recipes,” says Kajal.
“Didi makes good food but sometimes when she asks me to cook and then no one eats that. And then didi has to plan something else,” laughs Muskaan.
Every day, the children line up in front of the small shrine in their room. “I often ask Lord Bajrang Bali to give me courage and strength and to keep us safe. I also pray that I can become a police officer and take care of my brother and sister. Muskaan prays for good marks in every subject. Sumit just stands with us,” laughs Kajal.
The Centre launched the PM CARES for Children Scheme on May 29 last year, aiming to support children who have lost both parents or legal guardian or adoptive parents or a surviving parent to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ministry has till date received 9,042 applications under the scheme from 611 districts in 33 states, out of which 4,345 applications have been approved by district magistrates in 557 districts in 31 states. The scheme provides support for education and health and will create a corpus of Rs 10 lakh for each child when he or she reaches 18 years of age. This corpus will be used for a monthly stipend to be given once the child attains 18, and will go on till the child reaches the age of 23, after which she or he will get the corpus amount as a lump-sum.
The 113 children orphaned during the pandemic were given a fixed deposit of Rs 3 lakh each and a monthly payment of Rs 2,000 until they attain the age of 18. Besides, expenses towards their education will be met by the government from the CM’s Distress Relief Fund.
Last year, the state government announced a fixed deposit of Rs 5 lakh for each of the children who have lost both or either of their parents to Covid-19. They also get a monthly allowance of Rs 1,125. Over 800 children were orphaned during the pandemic.
Around 200 children lost both their parents during the COVID pandemic, while the number of those who lost either of their parents was much higher. As part of the Uttar Pradesh Mukhyamantri Bal Deva Yojana, the state government has been providing financial assistance of Rs 4,000 per month to guardians of children who lost either or both their parents. Government has also promised to bear the cost of education of the children until their graduation and, in case of the girl child, promised Rs 1.01 lakh for their marriage.
Last year, the Haryana government launched the ‘Mukhya Mantri Bal Seva Yojna’ to provide financial assistance to children orphaned by the pandemic and to their guardians. Under this scheme, the state government provides Rs 2,500 per child per month to families in whose care the children are until they attain the age of 18. Besides, the government provides an additional Rs 12,000 per annum to the affected children.
In Telangana, children orphaned during the pandemic who were unable to move in with relatives were sent to Child Welfare Department homes and subsequently admitted in residential schools. Those who wish to live with their relatives get Rs 2,000 per month as school expenses. The state government is also issuing smart cards to 256 such children affected by the pandemic, identifying them as ‘Children of the State’, which will exempt them from providing caste or income certificates to be eligible for government schemes.
The Andhra Pradesh Government has started fixed deposits of Rs 10 lakh each for the 341 children affected during the pandemic. The children can withdraw the monthly interest on the fixed deposit until the attain the age of 25, when they can choose to close the deposit. Children who weren’t able to move in with relatives were admitted to residential schools.