Announcement has drawn mixed reactions from UAE’s social workers and the Indian expat community.

India’s national airline Air India has announced that it has decided to fix the repatriation costs of mortal remains at Dh1,500 for adults and Dh750 for children under the age of 12 to India. The decision also applies to passengers of Air India’s budget subsidiary Air India Express. 

The announcement has drawn mixed reactions from the UAE’s social workers and the Indian expatriate community.

The national carrier has decided to do away with the practice of levying repatriation costs depending on the weight of the remains and destinations within India. The new rates will be charged from today from passengers travelling to sectors across India. A source with Air India in the UAE told Khaleej Times: “Air India has also fixed the rates across the GCC sector. The cost of repatriation from Saudi Arabia is 2,200 Saudi riyals, Kuwait is 175 dinar, Bahrain is 225 dinar, and Oman to India is 160 Omani riyal.”

‘Prices vary according to sector.’ 

While some social workers and expatriates are in support of fixed rates for all, many say that the decision negatively impacts expatriates from the north Indian sector where rates are allegedly lesser than the flights to the south. Social workers said that the prices to south India were much higher than those to northern states.

Furthermore, diplomatic heads from the Indian mission in Dubai have also said that the airline’s decision is not ‘a matter of concern’ as earlier, a letter from the Indian Consulate-General in Dubai (CGI) would lead to Air India entirely waiving off the cost of transportation of mortal remains. “It is almost the same. The difference levied comes up to approximately Dh200-Dh300,” explained Consul-General of India to Dubai Vipul.

Earlier, Air India provided a 50 per cent discount for mortal remains to be transported to India and the weight of the remains decided the cost of transportation. The transportation fees could be anything from Dh1,200 to Dh3,000, depending on the sector the remains were being flown to.

According to official statistics from the CGI, about 1,400 deaths were registered in the consulate in 2018. Vipul said: “About 70 per cent of these remains were sent back to India for performing last rites. The last rites of the remaining 30 per cent were performed in the UAE.”

Mission to support needy individuals

“Now, instead of the fees from Air India and Air India Express being completely levied upon a letter of request from us, the consulate will support individuals who cannot afford the airline transportation fee. The funds will be provided by the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF),” assured Vipul.

The mission will also cover other costs incurred, including embalming fees, documentation, airline handling charges, etc, which usually come up to approximately Dh4,500. The mission head said that the total expenses could amount a little over Dh6,000, which would be entirely covered by the consulate for those in need. 

Immense pressure from NGOs, NRIs 

It is also said that immense pressure from non-governmental organisations, non- resident Indians, social workers and expatriate community leaders has resulted in the standardisation of repatriation rates. Furthermore, the Indian community had raised these concerns when Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh visited Dubai in September 2017 that had led to Air India revoking its decision to cancel the 50 per cent discount on repatriation costs.

 A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to the Delhi High Court was filed in October 2018 and notices were issued by the court to the Civil Aviation Ministry, Ministry of External Affairs and Air India. Responses from the government bodies and the airline are expected to be presented on the next court hearing, scheduled to take place on January 14, said Melwyn Williams, the spokesperson for the Pravasi Legal Cell, an NGO that argued the current system placed destitute migrant Indians at a disadvantage and treats mortal remains like ‘cargo’.

‘Service cannot be free’

Roop Sidhu, general secretary of the Indian Association in Ajman, said he is glad that the inhumane practice of weighing mortal remains for repatriation is commendable. However, he added: “The decision impacts expatriates from different parts of India in different ways. For example, earlier, some repatriations to cities in India such as Amritsar and Punjab would usually cost up to Dh1,200-Dh1,300. However, in the south, it was much more.” 

Naseer Vatanapally, a Dubai- based social worker, hailed the decision and said: “It is a great decision. This rate is good, especially for south Indian expatriates. People must also understand that the service cannot be provided for free as companies could take advantage of the free charges, putting needy individuals at disadvantage.”

He added: “Malayalees used to shell out Dh1,800 to Dh3,000 towards airline transportation in some cases. For the south sector, this is indeed a great decision.”