The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it did not believe that only 27 children had been orphaned during the COVID-19 lockdown in Bengal, warning the state against providing "unacceptable" data and adding that it may order a probe if the correct numbers are not provided.
A two-judge bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao reminded the Bengal government that this is a matter of children's welfare and could not be seen as a political issue with the centre.
The court's irate response came during a hearing on ensuring the safety and protection of children whose parents had died, either as a result of COVID-19 or during lockdown periods.
It had asked the Bengal government for the number of Covid orphans in its territories, to which the state's counsel had replied: "27 children, where both parents have died."
A disbelieving bench questioned this, indicating it was low given the severity of the pandemic.
"If you (the Bengal government's lawyer) are saying 27 children were orphaned we will record the statement (but) Bengal is a big state... we are not prepared to believe this figure," the court said.
The lawyer for the Bengal government replied that collection of data is an "ongoing" process.
To this Justice Rao shot back: "Do not make irresponsible statements and do not give excuses. Understand the urgency of the situation. Orphans are left to fend for themselves. It is your duty to protect them not ours. We ensure children get their rights."
"Do not take such a stand. It is not a political matter, it pertains to welfare of children."
The court then directed District Magistrates across Bengal to collect the information and upload it to the NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) portal at the earliest.
It also directed the Secretary of the state's Women and Child Development and Social Welfare departments to file an affidavit on steps taken to upload these figures.
An accurate count of Covid orphans and plans for their education and care have been the focus of considerable debate since at least June, when the top court took up the issue suo motu.
The exact number of orphans, however, remains unclear even now, with conflicting reports from different agencies and questionable data from some state governments.
In May, Smriti Irani - the Union Minister for Women and Child Development - said 577 children across the country had been orphaned by Covid between April 1 and May 25.
This was based on data provided by state and UT governments.
Last week Ms Irani revised that figure and said 645 had been orphaned in that period. Uttar Pradesh had the most with 158 children. Andhra Pradesh was second with 119.
In June the NCPCR told the court that 3,621 children had been orphaned, 26,176 lost one parent and 274 were abandoned as a result of the pandemic.
This was for the period from April 1 last year to June 5 this year.