In an alarming move, Air India has decided to cancel the existing 50% discount on the repatriation of the mortal remains of Indian expatriates from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). More shocking, it seems the air carrier has, effective from September 19, also discontinued its practice of flying the remains of disadvantaged Indians without any freight charges, if such a move was recommended by the Indian Mission there.
The UAE was the only country where Air India offered this discount. The new rates applicable to the UAE are in accordance with The Air Cargo Tariff (TACT) rates stipulated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in order to maintain uniformity across networks.
As per the revised rates applicable to the UAE, all mortal remains being carried by Air India, and its low-cost option, Air India Express, are now charged at a rate of Dh27.20 (Rs 537) to Chennai and Hyderabad, Dh28.85 (Rs 569) to Calicut, Dh29.08 (Rs 574) to Kochi, Dh16.60 (Rs 327) per kg to Mumbai and Dh19.10 (Rs 377) to Delhi.
Activists in UAE have decried the cancellation of the 50% discount. This change in rates also comes at a time when activists there were already lobbying against the levying of charges based on the weight of the deceased individual.
Ashraf Tamarasseri, a UAE-based social activist, who has assisted many families in the repatriation of mortal remains, says that this is â€śa very sad and unfair moveâ€ť.
He points out that other airlines, like SpiceJet and Air Arabia, charge far less for repatriation of bodies than Indiaâ€™s national airline. However, these airlines do not serve as many sectors as Air India does, and there are some cities, like Mangalore, which are serviced only by Air India.
Tamarasseri also says that airlines like Etihad and Air Arabia do not levy charges based on the weight of mortal remains, but have a fixed tariff for flying mortal remains. He points out, â€śNational airlines of our neighbouring Asian countries, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, actually conduct repatriation of bodies free of charge.â€ť
He goes on to point out just how expensive this new move will prove to be.
â€śFor a person of a normal weight of around 80 kgs, in addition to the box weighing around 70 kgs, the total weight comes up to around 150 kgs; more if the person was heavier. There are also some steps that need to be followed here [in the UAE], like embalming of the body, and other expenses for ambulance charges and issuance of the death certificate, which add to further costs. All these procedures make the entire cost, on an average, to return a body from UAE to Kerala about Rs 1.5 lakhs, or more. This will affect the common man significantly. How will families afford such rates, especially in cases where the worker has not been paid or has not received his salary for months?â€ť
Non-payment of salary is a common plight faced by many migrant workers in Gulf countries at the hands of local employers.
However, The Indian Ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Singh Suri, told GulfNews that while employers and insurers are technically responsible for repatriation of bodies, if they fail to do so and disadvantaged families are unable to pay, the fees will be borne by Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF), run by Indian missions.
Still, Tamarasseri intends to carry out a 24-hour-long hunger strike on October 2 outside the Air India office in Delhi to register his protest against the cancellation of the 50 per cent discount.
Meanwhile, Kerala Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala wrote to Suresh Prabhu, Union Minister of Civil Aviation, requesting urgent intervention in cancelling the fare hike by Air India on repatriation of dead bodies from UAE. "This decision of Air India to double the fare would prove to be a huge jolt to these kind-hearted citizens," he wrote.
My letter requesting your urgent intervention in cancelling the fare hike by Air India on repatriation of dead bodies from UAE. pic.twitter.com/MB177hk0u5â€” Ramesh Chennithala (@chennithala) September 29, 2018