Last January, a 21-year-old woman who worked in a small shop in West Delhi’s Kirti Nagar area committed suicide. When police officials finally managed to get in touch with her mother in Assam 12 days later, she asked if her daughter’s body could be sent home as she did not have the money to even buy a general class rail ticket to travel to the Capital.

A few months later, a young man from Tripura was found begging at a traffic junction in South Delhi. The 26-year-old was starving and abnormally pale. He was taken to a hospital but died of multiple organ failure four days later. An investigation revealed that he had worked at a restaurant in Central Delhi’s Paharganj until he had fallen ill. He had not informed his family back home about this as they were very poor. In a few months, he had exhausted his meagre savings paying rent for his room in a slum colony and on food and medical expenses. When his mother was informed of his death, she, too, begged the police to send his body back to her as she did not have the means to come to Delhi.

In both cases, the families’ requests could not be fulfilled by the police or the district administration. The last rites of the deceased were conducted in Delhi, with the help of the police and without the families in attendance.

These incidents prompted an uncommon corporate social responsibility initiative last week. On January 10, IndiGo Airlines, in partnership with the Delhi Police, offered to ferry for free the bodies of underprivileged people from the North Eastern states who died in Delhi to five airports in the region– Agartala in Tripura, Guwahati and Dibrugarh in Assam, Chabwa in Nagaland, and Imphal in Manipur. The same day, Jet Airways announced a similar service, but for a 50% concession.

Humanitarian initiative

“There are times when I get over 20 such requests in a month,” said Joint Commissioner of Police Robin Hibu, who is also the nodal officer for matters concerning people from the northeastern states living and working in the Capital. “But I specifically remember these two cases. It broke my heart to hear their mothers weep as they did not have enough money to see their dead children for the last time.”

Hibu, who is a native of Arunachal Pradesh, said this prompted him to approach the airlines with a request for help in transporting bodies back to the North East, which is an expensive affair. By the end of 2016, he had written to all the major airline companies. On January 11, IndiGo flew the body of a young man from Manipur’s Ukhrul district to his home state – the first and only case so far under its Aakhiri Ahuti (final offering) initiative. The man, who worked in a business process outsourcing company in the National Capital Region, had died of cardiac arrest and his family could not afford to take his body back to Ukhrul.

“Sending a coffin by air to any of the northeastern states can cost up to Rs 75,000,” said Hibu. “The majority of the 12.5 lakh North Eastern population in Delhi-NCR, employed in the unorganised sector for meagre salaries, cannot afford this amount.” Checking his dairy, the joint commissioner added, “In December alone, my office was informed about eight cases of suicide and four natural deaths. They came seeking help.”

The protocol for availing of the airline concession is that every request must go through Hibu’s office. “In this regard, I have to make sure the service is availed only by those who are very poor,” he said. “A background check, however, is not a difficult task as residents of the North East region usually live in communities and there is not much to hide.”

Far from home

The Delhi Police set up their North East cell after the murder of Nido Tania, a 20-year-old from Arunachal Pradesh, in 2014. The student was beaten to death in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market, sparking outrage among members of the North Eastern community who said that they constantly faced attacks and discrimination in the Capital.

The establishment of the cell also brought to light “this grim picture of people from remote places in North East India dying in the city and their families lacking the resources to bring the bodies home for cremation and burial”, said Hibu.

In 2014, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs sanctioned a one-time fund of Rs 5 lakhs to Hibu’s office for the specific purpose of the burial and cremation of people from the Northeast whose families could not afford it. Soon, an informal arrangement was made with a cemetery at Sector 24 in Delhi’s Dwarka sub-city for burial in such cases. Later, similar arrangements were made with another cemetery in North Delhi’s Burari and a crematorium in West Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh.

“The money from the fund was used to pay for the basics – including the gravedigger’s wage in case of burials and for ghee, urn and other essentials in case of cremation,” Hibu said. “The fund was exhausted in less than a year. But the latest CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives are expected to bring relief to the poorest of the poor in the North Eastern communities living in Delhi.”