The Telangana government’s free ambulance service for transporting bodies of dead migrant workers to their hometowns from the Hyderabad airport is not exactly free, as one migrant worker’s family found out. To transport his father’s body to Adilabad, Harish had to shell out a sum of Rs 1,500. When confronted, the driver reportedly told the youth, “Everyone pays us for the trip.”
The Telangana government offers up to Rs 10,000 per ambulance trip to anywhere in the state to the service providers hired on contract. The facility can only be availed if the deceased migrant worker was from a Below Poverty Line (BPL) household. Activists working for the rights of Gulf migrants in the state say the practice of asking for a tip when a family is grieving is immoral.
Sherla Harish Kumar wrote to the Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao about his family having to pay money to avail the free ambulance service. They had availed the service to transport the body of Harish’s father, Sherla Jalandhar, who passed away due to a stroke in Bahrain on August 1. His body had to be transported from the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad’s Shamshabad to Girnoor village in Adilabad.
“It was raining the day my father’s body arrived at the airport in the morning. They released the body to us only by 6 pm. It was tough to drive in those conditions and the trip took longer than the usual three hours. We reached only by 2 am,” said Harish, adding he then offered Rs 500 to the driver even though the service was free. “At that time, he started demanding more. I had offered him money out of goodwill,” added the youth, who then had to collect money from three different people in the middle of the night to pay off the driver.
Srisai Ambulance Service, which operates the free ambulance service on a contract basis, called it the first such complaint reported to them. “We returned the money and have apologised for the inconvenience. The ambulance driver has been terminated from service,” said a company representative.
However, Mandha Bheem Reddy, Gulf migrants rights activist, said the practice is common and said though it had been brought to the notice of the ambulance service owner no action has been taken.
“Some drivers take up to Rs 2,500 from these grieving families,” said Reddy, adding that there is no awareness among the migrant community about the services they are entitled to.”
The facility is not new, it has been available for over a decade but most people don’t know that such a service exists as there is not much publicity. The service is extended only if one makes a formal request. Social workers have to tell the families that they are eligible and coordinate with them.
The Telangana NRI Cell officials were unavailable for comment.
Since July 2014, the NRI Cell has officially helped bring the bodies of around 518 migrants back to the state.
“Unofficially, another 100 bodies may have arrived. Of these cases, around 30 are suicides. Most deaths are attributed to heart attacks due to harsh weather conditions, and lack of proper food and sleep. In some cases, where a person injured in a road accident gets admitted to hospital and dies, the hospital authorities declare it as cardiac arrest. This is done to avoid the payment of compensation of Rs 15 lakh, which the worker is eligible for,” said Chitti Babu, NRI wing officer, to ToI.