The Supreme Court on Tuesday raised doubts about the accuracy of the West Bengal government’s data on the number of children orphaned during the coronavirus pandemic, reported Live Law. The court also warned the state that it will order an investigation if the correct data has not been submitted.

“You are so steadfast in saying only 27 orphans are there [in West Bengal],” a two-judge bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose told advocate Sayandeep, who appeared for the West Bengal government. “Look at other states. It’s not like your state had Covid-19 at all. We are not prepared to believe this at all.”

The counsel then said that the counting of orphans was an ongoing process. To this, the bench said: “Please don’t make such irresponsible statements here. Do you understand the urgency of the situation here? Orphans can’t be asked to fend for themselves.”

The court had taken up the suo motu case to address the problems of children impacted due to Covid-19.

In an oral observation during Tuesday’s hearing, the court said that welfare schemes announced by the central government should cover all children who were orphaned during the pandemic and not just those who lost their parents due to Covid-19.

The observation came after amicus curiae Gaurav Agarwal told the court that according to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights data, there are 6,855 children who have lost both their parents during the coronavirus pandemic.

The court pointed out that on July 23, a Union minister had said only 685 children were orphaned.

Agarwal then clarified that the government’s figure only included children of parents who died of the infection but not all of those who died during the pandemic. He said that the Centre identified the 685 children as it wanted to have a special scheme for them.

However, the court said that the Centre’s scheme to provide Rs 10 lakh to children whose parents died due to Covid-19 should also cover those who became orphans during the pandemic, but not necessarily due to the infection.

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati then said that she would take instructions on the court’s suggestion.

On May 20, the Centre had announced a financial assistance scheme for children who have lost parents to the coronavirus disease.

These children will get a monthly stipend once they turn 18 from a corpus of Rs 10 lakh allotted for each of them in order to meet personal expenses and higher education under the “PM-CARES for Children” scheme. Once they turn 23 years old, the government will give them the entire corpus.

After hearing the submissions, the court said that there should not be any delay in the identification of children who have lost both or one parent after March 2020.

In view of this, the court directed district magistrates to issue necessary instructions to welfare and protection officers to take the assistance of police, District Child Protection Unit, civil society organisations, gram panchayats, Anganwadi and Asha networks for the identification process.

It also asked district magistrates to continue uploading information about the orphaned children on NCPCR’s Bal Swaraj portal.

Further, the court directed state governments to ensure that the orphaned children are allowed to continue in the same schools at least for this academic year. “If there’s a difficulty with continuing in private schools, they may be accommodated in schools under the Right To Education Act,” the court said.

The court will next hear the case after three weeks.