Can PM-CARES Fund spare money to help children affected by COVID-19 stay in school, asks Supreme Court

Supreme Court: Centre must clarify the rationale for pricing of COVID-19 vaccines

The Bench highlighted that education was a fundamental right of children

The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre whether it can immediately release funds from the PM-Cares Fund for the education of children who have been orphaned or have lost legal guardians or either of their parents during the pandemic.

A Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose highlighted that education was a fundamental right of children. Children needed to stay in school. It was especially anxious about the future of children who studied in private schools, where the fee may be on the higher side, and had lost their parents after the COVID-19 virus began disrupting lives since March 2020.

“Children should not lose the benefits of education because of the pandemic… Can the PM-Cares Fund come forward and immediately release some funds for the education of these children at least for the year? Is there any facility for that?” Justice Rao asked Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, for the Centre.

Justice Rao said the Centre could coordinate with the States and help with the funds for the education of children. Justice Rao asked Ms Bhati to enquire with the Central authorities about the release of funds later in the day so that the court could pass an appropriate order.

“We can say that the States can contact the Central government for funds for the education of these children…” the Bench observed.

Justice Rao asked whether children who were eligible for financial help under the PM-Cares Fund had so far been identified.

Three categories

“The children have been separated into three categories — those who have lost both parents, those who have lost either parent and those who have lost their legal guardians,” Ms Bhati said.

The law officer said the onus of identifying the children had been given to the District Magistrates concerned.

Justice Rao, at this point, highlighted that information about these children had been uploaded by the States on the website of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

“With this information available on the NCPCR, you can see that the benefits of PM-Cares Fund can be given to the children,” Justice Rao said.

During the hearing, Justice Rao said some States such as Gujarat and Maharashtra had tied up with NGOs to aid the cause of education of children personally affected during the COVID-19 days.

The court urged the States to take care of the children, saying they were vulnerable and should fall into “undesirable hands”.

“They do not have the means to protect themselves. The State has to protect them,” Justice Rao addressed advocate Mehfooz A. Nazki, counsel for Andhra Pradesh.

In one instance while hearing the welfare measures adopted by various States, Justice Rao told advocate Diksha Rai Goswami for Assam, “take care that children are not thrown out of schools”.

In a June hearing, advocate Gaurav Agarwal, who is amicus curiae in the suo motu case, had pieced together media reports and explained to the court that the government, through PM-CARES, proposed to help children impacted by COVID-19 continue their education.

“It would fund whatever educational requirements, in the form of uniforms, textbooks, etc. The scheme would also offer financial help to children for their higher education. Mr Agrawal said a corpus of ₹10 lakh for each child. The child would get the corpus amount in lump-sum on reaching the age of 23. “This may be so that he or she would have some money when they start on their own… There is also health insurance till the age of 18,” Mr Agrawal had submitted then.

Mr Agrawal said the pandemic had wreaked havoc in the lives of many children who had either lost both parents or guardians to the virus. He said, quoting the newspaper report, that there had been a marked increase in child trafficking, especially of girls. Mr Agrawal said the government had an obligation to protect children.