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IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON “INVISIBLE” POPULATION

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

This article is written by Sanket Shivansh and Hani Dipti, law students at Chanakya National Law University, Patna


Introduction

India is home to one of the world’s largest populations of Street Children and the number is increasing abruptly making the situation alarming. The word ‘street children have been advancing, though, the comprehensive definition was given in 1994 by the Commission on Human Rights as “somebody for whom the road has become their persistent home in addition to their source of livelihood; and who is insufficiently secured, safeguarded, or worked with by able grown-ups.” They are often depicted as an ‘invisible’ population living on footpaths or in temporary living spaces. The homeless appear to be neglected in public policies in view of the insufficiency of reliable resources to the homeless population and abdication of responsibility towards them. Due to this very systemic negligence, these homeless children are forced to suffer multiple vulnerabilities. The lives of these neglected children were already tough yet the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic exacerbated them. It is difficult to envision the destiny of these 'invisible youngsters once the Covid-19 disaster struck, followed by the lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic has additionally added to their agonies. Thus, this article tries to analyze the status of street children in India, also the aggravating factors contributing to street life. Further, it tries to analyze the magnitude of the problem and the pandemic effect and finally the way forward.


Street Children in India and the Factors Contributing To the Street Life

The majority of Street children in Indian urban cities are the consequence of the delayed agrarian distress in rural regions prompting constrained migration to the urban communities. In 2007, a Ministry of Women and Child Development report on child abuse found that 66.8% of children living on the streets have reported being physically abused either by relatives and others. 65.9% of the children who lived on the street lived with their families. Out of these, “51.84% slept on the pavements, 17.48% slept in shelters and 30.67% did not have a constant sleeping area”. They don't have permanent living areas; they need to sleep in different locations such as under flyovers, railway platforms, bus stops, parks, marketplaces, footpaths, etc.

Youngsters who are vulnerable against road life include the individuals who have been abandoned by their families or sent into urban areas because of a family's outrageous neediness, with the assumption that they really will bring in cash and send it home. Youngsters who flee from home or child homes end up in the city they seldom return back to their imperfect families, where they are subjected to physical, mental, and sexual maltreatment. Children with disabilities are generally deserted. Furthermore, exiled kids from armed conflict areas, youngsters segregated from their families for extended time span, and vagrants find nowhere to go except the streets.


The Magnitude of the Problem

Children living on the street are considered as hidden or invisible children. Being hidden, they are prone to the frequent risk of being abused, exploited, and neglected. Being deprived of proper shelters and living on the street have extremely detrimental physical and mental effects. They are prone to extreme weather conditions like extreme rain, high and low temperatures. This evidently put the kids at a higher risk of getting sick and developing a more serious ailment, the kind of work which they do especially work like cleaning drainage and sewage, can likewise add to them contracting sicknesses that are far worse than seasonal illnesses.

They lack adequacy of resources, like clean food and water, sanitation facilities, they lack basic health care facilities, which further sharply reduce their chance of complete recovery and may affect their ability to work in the future. Their unsteady way of living, lack of medical care and inadequate living conditions increase these young children’s susceptibility to malnourishment and chronic illnesses such as respiratory, mental health issues, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. They are being forced into criminal activity and recruited into gangs. Usage of drugs and other soporifics by these children are very common, they use drugs as a medium to numb the suffering and deal with the hardships associated with their lives on the street. They are even denied the fundamental Right of education. Street kids often get rebuffed by a general set of laws that discriminatorily affects being destitute or whose births are not enrolled.


Effect of Covid-19 Pandemic on Street Children

These homeless children are considered an invisible burden on society and are often not included in the country census, yet the unavailability of proper data and accountability of such children living on the streets results in inadequate public health preparedness measures that have been lacking responsibility for the respective administrative authorities in the Indian policies. It has been already observed during the prior pandemics of Influenza and SARS that the populations which are homeless living on street pose unique vulnerabilities to themselves as well as to general wellbeing. Due to the negligible percentage of detection and treatment the rate of unfurling of infection, and rate of death was highest among them. It has led to the development of various pandemic planning guides for the homeless and housing service providers, the implementation of which continues to be sketchy.

A three-tier procedure to reduce the pandemic, social distancing, hand, and respiratory cleanliness respectively were suggested by WHOM. While the execution of these actions and public consistency to them itself is loaded with difficulties, shouldn't something be said about the homeless population who have limited access to basic human rights including shelter and health care? The Living standards of such children are barely hygienic, and, expecting them to utilize the advisable sanitary measures without proper support which is highly missing on the part of the state and civil society, thus, this becomes a far-fetched thought. Consequently, it is practically impossible to practice ‘social distancing’ in informal settlements like people living on the streets. Furthermore, these homeless kids often lack required documents to get relief measures relating to food, shelter, health, hygiene, and livelihood. Also, with no cash in hand, they have become vulnerable victims of the virus.


Way Forward

The government is obliged to provide protection and all the basic rights and resources to children required to sustain, but for this, the Government requires accurate data on the street children so that they can provide adequate resources to them. Also, fulfilling India’s commitment, under the Child Rights Convention and its specific guidance, UN General Comment 21. Organizations working towards the accurate data of street children are required to better design their programs. At this juncture it is required, concerted efforts of both public and private associations to work towards providing the basic rights of food, shelter, healthcare, livelihood, and sanitary facilities to these street children. The primary focus should be on providing safe, hygienic, and affordable housing facilities by knocking down discrimination. Not solely should the government pivot on creating new physical infrastructure yet additionally as per the alarming conditions of these homeless children the focus should be on improving, keeping up with, and monitoring the existing ones.

Adhering to the landmark judgments of Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation,[1] and State of Karnataka and Ors v. Narasimhamurthy and Ors,[2]in which the Hon’ble Court held the important components of the Right to life under Article 21 of the Indian constitution which includes “right to livelihood and shelter”. Thus, owing to this the government should devise the necessary recommendations concerning the homeless. Further, temporary arrangements for residing can be made based on their needs, and basic requirements. The homeless should be provided with adequate resources to prolong sanitation and hygiene. Mental health support should be made accessible. In addition, they should be sensitized and educated about prudent measures required to tackle this pandemic. A distinct helpline number may be issued at the district level to look after the several needs. Additionally, day and night and shelters ought to be underlying the guidelines provided by the Supreme Court- one shelter with space for 100 persons. Thus, this will only be tackled if the government undertakes smart planning and sensibly utilizes the expenditure of funds.

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