Government provides free vans to ferry bodies of migrant workers. Families say the process lacks dignity.Several bodies of Nepali workers who died in foreign countries in the past have been carried in open vans, which families say adds pain to their grief.
When Sikandar Raut left his village to work in Dubai this summer, he told his family that he would be back in a few months. He had been working in the United Arab Emirates for over ten years and made several trips in between.
Sikandar had bought a piece of land in Dhanusha and spent some money on the marriages of four of his daughters. He also spent a substantial amount of money on his wife’s treatment. All that meant, he still had loans to pay.
“He said he would cancel his job and return soon to start something on his own,” Arvind Raut, his nephew, told the Post. “He was planning to clear the loans with the bonus he was expecting.”
Sikandar did return—but in a coffin. He died in a road accident in October.
It took weeks to bring his body back to Nepal—but not until his son, Radhe, was forced to travel to Dubai first. But it was what the family members had to go through after getting the body to Nepal that put them in more pain. Sikandar’s body was transported to their village, some 200 kilometres from Kathmandu, in an open vehicle.
“The body was kept on the back of the pick-up van,” said Arvind. “The least they could have done for him was provide a proper hearse.”
The Foreign Employment Board—the government body responsible for migrant workers’ welfare—provides free vehicles for ferrying bodies to the family members to their home addresses. Transporting bodies of migrant workers is one of the major works of the board, which also works on policy intervention for the welfare of migrant workers. Every year, the board helps carry hundreds of bodies to respective family members’ houses and for this, it has outsourced four companies—RD Dhuwani Sewa, Seti Ganesh Suppliers, Buddhchhap Dhuwani Sewa and Setiganesh Dhuwani Sewa.
But Sikandar’s aggrieved family members said the government didn’t show any respect to the dead by failing to provide a proper vehicle.
Most of the vehicles used for transporting the bodies are different models of Mahindra Bolero jeeps, with a cabin on the front and an open carrier on the back. The bodies are kept on the back—mostly uncovered. Representatives of all four companies that transport bodies on behalf of the board told the Post that most of the vehicles are of Bolero model, with an open carrier on the back.
“Following applications from family members of the deceased migrant workers and completing documentation, we provide vehicles free of cost for transporting bodies to their homes or as far as the vehicles can reach,” said Din Bandhu Subedi, spokesperson for the board. “In years of services, we have not received any complaints from family members. The service continues even during festivals and other holiday breaks”
According to Subedi, the board will take immediate action if family members report any sorts of hassles faced by them while accessing the services.
Family members of Santosh Kumar Mandal, who also died in Malaysia in October, described similar ordeal while transporting his mortal remains to his home in Morang.
“At first, the driver and the official told us they would deliver the body only up to Biratnagar,” Jagdish Mandal, Santosh’s uncle, told the Post last month when they were at the board’s office to collect compensation pay.
Only upon request did they agree to transport the body up to the village, which is just six kilometres from Biratnagar, the district headquarters, according to Mandal.
Three members from Santosh’s family had travelled to Kathmandu to receive the body. Two of them sat on the back of the vehicle which was uncovered for an arduous 11-hour journey.
“His father sat on the front. We did not have any warm clothes with us and we travelled without any cover,” said Mandal. “Our culture doesn’t allow the bodies to be left by itself so we had to sit on the back.”
Santosh’s family, though appreciative of the free service, said the government must show some respect for the dead.
“They can hire ambulance vans or any other vehicles that are properly covered,” Mandal said. “Accompanying family and relatives can at least stay inside the vehicles. Providing a proper vehicle is also about showing some respect for the dead.”
The government does not have any specific standards while hiring vehicles through a public auction every year. The minimum criteria set for selecting vehicles are four-wheelers so that they can traverse the rugged terrain. Subedi said they also ensure that at least two people can sit in the front cabin.
“The vehicle should transport bodies to the destination provided by the family members. We cannot specifically mention a certain model or brand or manufacturers because of free competition,” said Subedi. “But the vehicle should be covered properly irrespective of the type used. This is a minimum standard.”
However, all the companies transporting bodies of migrant workers have their own practice of carrying the bodies. While some cover the vehicles on at least both sides, others say the distance determines whether the vans carrying bodies should be covered or not. Rather than permanent covers, these companies shield the vehicle with tarpaulin sheets.
Owners of the transportation services mostly defend their practices, saying they haven’t heard complaints from families. Hiralal Dhakal, owner of RD Dhuwani Sewa, which has been transporting bodies for 12 years now, says they can’t use ambulances because the coffins don’t fit in.
“We mostly cover the vans from both sides using tarpaulin sheets, but the upper side is left uncovered,” said Dhakal. “Not covering the van from all sides is also easier because police and other protesters do not stop the van as they can easily see the coffin.”
Mingma Syangtan, owner of Buddhchhap Dhuwani Sewa, told the Post that covered vehicles are used for delivering bodies to districts far from Kathmandu and only during monsoon.
Human rights campaigners say migrant workers and their family members deserve dignified treatment and the government has to manage proper hearse for respectfully delivering their bodies to their family members.
“Such bodies cannot be sent in vans which are not covered,” said Barun Ghimire, programme manager at the Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice, an organisation that works on migrant rights issues. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Responding to a writ filed by Ghimire’s firm, the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that it is the government’s obligation to transport bodies and make all the required arrangements.
Dignity and the rights of both migrant workers and the family members are undermined when the bodies are not handled properly because, Ghimire said, they died while making contributions for the country.
“Just providing free services is not enough,” said Ghimire. “This is not charity work but an obligation of the government.”