72 of their bodies were brought back through Tiruchi airport in the last six months

Earlier this week, agricultural labourer Selvaraj went to receive the body of his wife Sudha, a mother of two, at the Tiruchi airport. Her remains, embalmed in a wooden coffin, was to be taken to their house in Vandipettai village near Thanjavur.

Tears streaming down uncontrollably as the box was loaded on to the ambulance, all Selvaraj could manage was, “I told her not to go, but she said she would for the sake of the family.”

For many blue collar workers from central and southern Tamil Nadu, the Tiruchi airport is the gateway to greener pastures in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates. However, not all of them find the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Some, like the 34-year-old Sudha, who went to work as a domestic help at Wadi al Dawasir in Saudi Arabia to earn 900 Riyals, returned as wooden encasements.

During the period between January and July 2012, the bodies of 72 persons arrived here from foreign shores, primarily shipped by Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India Express.

Barring three per cent from Sri Lanka and European nations, the remaining were invariably unskilled labourers from the Arabian Peninsula. Going by the records on 35 persons, at least 25 were under the age of 50. The most common causes of death attributed were heart attack and accidents on road and at the workplace.

According to the death certificate, Sudha died in April. Her relatives suspect foul play. A driver from Kerala informed the family about her death. Just two days before, Sudha had called up home.

“On her last call, Sudha said that she did not like it there as she was being tortured and would come home soon,” said her husband Selvaraj who has a heart problem, a reason why Sudha opted to go abroad to earn.

It took the efforts of Thanjavur District Rural Consumer Protection Council, a Bangalore-based women’s organisation, and efforts of the District Collectors of Tiruchi and Thanjavur to liaise with the Consulate before Sudha’s remains were brought home, three months later.

The demise of Kalimuthu, a 24-year-old construction labourer from Paravakottai in Tiruvarur district, was certified as “sudden death”. “The family was dependent on him, with his brother being mentally retarded,” said a close relative.

Like in the case of 28-year-old Prakash, young men deemed healthy by their families are often reported dead with little or no explanation.

“He called up to say that his employer had confiscated his passport and he could not return home. He was going to demand his unpaid salary and return home,” recalls his uncle. A day later, news reached home that he had died of “poisoning”.

Officials say that the possibility of examining the body in India is ruled out if a ‘no-objection’ certificate is issued by the Indian embassy unless the relatives of the dead petition authorities. This is hardly the case as the relatives are illiterate.

Not only are safety measures at workplaces a cause of concern but, as in the case of Ganapathy, who drowned in an offshore accident, the fight for compensation is long-drawn, says his sister-in-law Lakshmi. There must be a crackdown on bogus agencies that lure labourers to foreign shores with false promises believes Vimal, president, Thanjavur District Rural Consumer Protection Council that is fighting for compensation for Sudha.

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