• September 30, 2020 2:51 am

Reporting From Delhi

Anxious wait for precious cargo 

BySashikala VP

Apr 29, 2020

Mortal remains of 150 Indians working in countries in the Gulf are stuck due to red tape and lackadaisical attitude of embassy officials  

Vinod Kumar, for most of the growing up years of his two daughters, lived in Kuwait, earning enough to see his children through their schooling in Kerala’s Kozhikode. Eighteen years of working in another land came to an end on 21 April when he passed away from brain haemorrhage at 48 years of age. The last the family saw of him was in April 2019. He had been planning to come home to visit, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world.

The trauma the family back home has faced is not just coping with their bereavement but to bring his body back for the last rites. With Covid-19 putting a complete lockdown on movement of Indians, and with all domestic and international flights halted, the task of repatriating mortal remains of Indian nationals has proved to be even harder than before.

In Kumar’s case, all his documents were in order, including a certificate from the hospital in Kuwait declaring him a non-Covid-19 case and the Indian embassy’s no-objection certificate (NOC). But the day his body was to be transported on a cargo flight of Qatar Airways, on 23 April, India’s home ministry issued a circular stating that the repatriation of mortal remains would require an NOC from the Ministry. The airport rejected the body, and Kumar’s family are still waiting, over a week after his demise, for his body to be brought back.

The family wrote several emails to authorities asking for help. The home ministry declared no NOC was required from it on 25 April, the same day that the Pravasi legal cell through its advocate Jose Abraham approached the Supreme Court with a writ petition asking the government to withdraw the instructions issued. Even a couple of days after, the body was stuck.

This was not the only such case. Abraham had then said the mortal remains of at least 150 people were waiting to be brought back home from Gulf nations.

The wheels are now moving, with seven bodies from the UAE returned on 28 April to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra, according to Abraham.

In Kumar’s case and that of at least 14 other Indians whose bodies are in Kuwait with cargo companies, Convenor of the registered Federation of Indian Associations Babu Francis says  they still await clearance from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In fact, according to Francis, out of two bodies in transit and stopped in Doha, only one has received clearance and will be flown to Chennai on the next available flight. The other had still not been given clearance at the time of filing this report.

“The other reason is that out of two airlines flying cargo planes – Qatar Airways and Emirates – only Qatar Airways is carrying mortal remains. So, bodies are pending due to a backlog.”

Vinod Kumar with his wife and two daughters

Kumar’s younger brother Sunil says they have been informed that his brother may be brought home on 1 May. The sole breadwinner of the family, Kumar’s work as a domestic help allowed him to raise both his daughters, give them education. While one is married, Sunil says, the younger daughter recently finished her Master’s in Education and has not yet found a job.  “We will help them, there’s no other way…”, Sunil tells Patriot over the phone from his home in Kozhikode.

“This Coronavirus has made things so difficult. But the government of Kerala is helping us. Once he (Kumar) is home, his last rites will be taken care of smoothly, we are sure,” Sunil says.

Francis says that even after the home ministry had decided that an NOC was not required from their end, the embassy had not received any circular or update on the home ministry’s decision. This was on Monday, 27 April.

And while now things have picked up, he blames the Indian embassy in Kuwait for being lackadaisical. “They are not functioning because of Ramadan and this cargo is pending. These people are saying that clearance will be given for sending the bodies home. But cases keep increasing and these are all labour class people with families who don’t have the means. Some have been helped by associations here who take donations or the employer themselves on humanitarian grounds send the bodies back. The Indian embassy, however, is not using its welfare fund to help people. They are not even helping those labourers who are stuck here in the country without a job”, he accuses.

“The embassy makes an income out of all the expats here. Each consular service takes a cut under the welfare fund for each application and this is called Indian embassy welfare fund. Use this money for welfare. We have a committee for welfare with one person from the embassy, but we need the embassy to take charge, not like this that we beg for help from others, especially for those in quarantine. And because the embassy dropped 29 associations of the Indian community here from their approved list, they are unable to give support during this crisis”.

“We even wrote to the Government of India requesting their urgent intervention. Indians want to return to their homeland because of loss of income due to Covid-19 imposed lockdown here. Some want to return due to illness.” But while that may not be possible, Francis says the government must at least ensure safe and secure accommodation for those in labour camps, “See that they have adequate food, medicines, quarantine, and emergency service facilities”.

Kuwait has a total of 10,29,861overseas Indians, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. A majority of them are from the state of Kerala.

(Cover image: Representational photo: Getty Images)