Families awaiting the remains of their loved ones from Abu Dhabi, who had died by causes other than COVID-19, spent another agonising night on Sunday, after three bodies were sent back to the UAE by immigration authorities in Delhi on Friday.
Officials said they hoped that the bodies of Kamlesh Bhatt, Sanjeev Kumar and Jagsir Singh would arrive again early on Monday by an Etihad Airlines flight, after the government reversed its decision to ban coffins being brought back as a part of air cargo due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Bhatt's cousin Vimlesh Bhatt, who had even filed a petition with the High Court in Delhi over the issue, said he was driving back to Delhi for the second time in three days, undertaking the seven hour drive from Tehri in the hope that the body would be allowed to come back to India on Monday morning.
While one of the victims had died in a car accident, the other two suffered heart attacks. But despite appeals from the Indian Embassy and airline officials that they were not COVID-19 patients, officials refused to hand them over to their families, who had driven down from Uttarakhand and Punjab despite lockdown restrictions, to collect the remains.
“We feel extremely sorry for the families of these three men,” India’s Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor told The Hindu, expressing shock at the way the bodies were returned summarily to the UAE by airport authorities.
On Saturday, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a memorandum (No.25022/06/2020-Imm) revoking the earlier ban and said bodies and mortal remains would be permitted “subject to strict adherence to the guidelines ...regarding management of COVID-19 and submission of a no objection approval/concurrence from Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and MEA”.
However, the Health Ministry is yet to issue the required SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), which officials say is delaying matters further.
The incident in Delhi marked the third such decision involving Indians who passed away in the Gulf during the last month.
Last week, the bodies of two citizens from Kerala were flown to Chennai from Dubai and were held at the airport for hours because of “protocol” issues, while the bodies of two workers in Kuwait city were prevented from being flown back.
The spurt in such cases prompted Delhi-based activist Jose Abraham of the “Pravasi legal cell” to file a PIL in the Supreme Court, demanding directions to the government to remove restrictions on the repatriation of bodies. According to Mr. Abraham, the PIL could be taken up by the Court this week.
“All embassies in the Gulf region are aware of the importance of such situations as often the deceased is a bread earner for the family back home. This particular issue could have been handled better and that is why even the Ambassador expressed his unhappiness about the development,” former ambassador to the UAE, Talmiz Ahmad said about the case of the bodies being returned to Abu Dhabi.
According to NRI activist in the UAE, Girish Pant, who has been assisting families with such cases, at least 12 other bodies of people belonging to different parts of the country including Delhi, Chennai, Trivandrum, Lucknow and Ahmedabad are also in Dubai, awaiting clearances to be repatriated to their families.
“They have a right to see their loved ones and to conduct their last rites with dignity,” Mr. Pant said to The Hindu. “The government must sort out the regulations to accept and release these remains as soon as possible, so as not to deepen the trauma and grief for their families,” he added.