Representative Illustration / Design: Roopesh K
Jhirul Islam, 24, a migrant worker from Assam's Nagaon, who had been working in a car wash centre in Ernakulam died in a road accident on June 19, 2022. The police completed the procedures including inquest and postmortem. The officials also issued the no-objection certificate (NOC) for inter-state transport of the dead body through air/road/rail mode. The relatives of the deceased person were in search of options for taking the body to his home. That's when a private party approached them. They convinced the relatives and agreed to ferry the body to Nagaon, the deceased's native place. They charged the relatives Rs 35,000. Later, Progressive Workers Organization(PWO), which is involved in migrant welfare activities among others, found that Islam's relatives were cheated by the ferry service provider. The private party overcharged them for ferrying that will cost around Rs 20,000. PWO found that the margin of fleecing was nearly Rs 15,000. Moreover, the fact is that the dead bodies of migrant workers can be transported to their respective places free of cost(Rs 50,000 upper limit) under Kerala government's migrant welfare scheme. However, due to lack of awareness about the government scheme many families directly approach private parties involved in ferrying service and fall prey to their fleecing.
Interestingly, even the labour department relies on the private entities for ferrying the dead bodies. The difference is that they quote the actual cost with the labour department, but will charge double or triple the rate if families approach directly. It is learnt that there are private entities that charge upto Rs 2 lakh for ferrying the dead body. Sources say there is a chain of middlemen through which these families are entrapped. More often, ambulance drivers, mortuary staff, employees at the hospital, medical shop staff and the ones in the coffin business act as agents of this gross and unholy business.
Meanwhile, if NGOs or civic organizations working in the sector are alerted about a migrant worker's death or if they come to know about it through some source, they will proactively intervene. They will assist the families in complying with the legal formalities and documentation for ferrying the body under migrant welfare scheme. It may be noted that procedures to avail the government scheme is a bit cumbersome, which in turn make some families look up to the private players directly. Even if it is a small clerical mistake, the process will prolong. On the other hand, a misconception that only those registered under the welfare scheme are eligible for labour department backed ferrying is keeping some away from availing the assistance. Similarly, NGOs or civic organizations have the limitation of intervening in the deaths happening in each nook and corner of the state.
Most employers distance themselves from giving assistance to the families over the fear of scrutiny and legal complications. Some worry that assisting would lead to demand for compensation or invite checks on occupation related safety standards. Also, as these migrant workers come under an unorganized structure, employers can easily avoid obligations.
Language barriers and absence of migrant welfare nodal agencies across the state are the major reasons why these families end up in the hands of a section of crooked and cunning private players who operate like mafia.
What data and trends show
According to the data provided by the state labour department as of May 11, 2022, it has spent Rs 45,92,196 for transporting dead bodies of 158 guest workers to their respective native states, since the launch of Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme in 2010. However, it may be noted that stipulation for providing financial assistance for transportation of dead bodies was rolled out from the year 2018 only. That means in the four year-long stretch, the number of bodies transported with the labour department's assistance is 158. Considering the volume of migrant workers in the state, it becomes evident that most of the dead bodies are ferried through non-governmental sources.
According to Dr Benoy Peter, executive director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, their NGO which is in Ernakulam in a month is assisting 8-10 families of deceased migrant workers in a month to comply with formalities of the labour department backed ferrying .
"Only deaths from occupational hazards get covered by the media, but the total number of deaths is far more. If the death happens in regions where NGOs or civic organizations are not active, then families will directly take the bodies to their native after police and other formalities due to unawareness about the scheme. Even if they get to know about the government scheme they would require assistance to comply with formalities. This is the opportunity where those involved in dead body ferrying service use their tactics", he pointed out.
Interaction with those involved in the spectrum revealed that in a month around 100 migrant workers might be dying in all 14 districts of the state. While the number of bodies ferried through the labour department over the four years is merely 158. This reveals the scope of the gross and ghostly business that is thriving in the state in an unchecked manner. It is learnt that due to the exorbitant rate for ferrying, some dead bodies remain in the mortuaries without any takers.
Recently, the labour department came up with another circular which said only those deceased migrants whose dependents are not in Kerala will be directly getting financial assistance for ferrying. While if the dependents are here, then the department will sanction no more than Rs 50,000 for the bills raised against the special arrangements made by them for ferrying the body. George Mathew, a migrant welfare activist and convenor of the Progressive Workers Organization sees red in this circular and said that this in turn will make the process even more cumbersome and leave dependents before profit minded entities who provide for the so called special arrangements. "It seems the government is trying to reduce its responsibility," he said.
The formalities to be carried out depend on the type of death. Basically, autopsy, embalming, death documentation and summary, NOC from police and communication with the administration in the deceased's native are the procedures involved. While transportation, freezer service, and purchase of a special box(coffin)) for carrying the dead body are the costs involved.
Activists have been demanding for a long time that the documentation process that makes people run from pillar to post should be made systematic. Moreover, in the absence of nodal agency, there should be an entity that is under the supervision of the government which acts as one-stop solution provider for all special arrangements that need to be made while ferrying the dead body. Similarly, they demand that data on migrant deaths happening in the should be maintained in a systematic manner as the government document farmer suicides or road accidents.
Having said that, another set of data given by the labour department shows that the state government, through its exclusive accidental death coverage scheme for the migrants, has spent Rs 54 lakhs. That is, 27 families of the deceased individuals have received Rs 2 lakhs each. Apart from this, 326 migrant laborers have received a total of Rs 20,02,328 from the government through its medical insurance scheme. Similarly, a migrant labourer who suffered amputation from an accident has received Rs 50,000.
But there are allegations that in many cases death compensation turns out to be the government's publicity stunt. Moreover, completing the formalities for getting death compensation is a herculean task for families of the deceased migrant workers as they have to camp here for months or years to finally avail the relief. The story is almost the same for other compensation schemes. Activists also bat that compensation amount should be hiked as most victims are economically backward, dalits, adivasis and people from minority communities. In fact most are migrating to Kerala as they can't even earn Rs 10,000/month in their native states.