Thousands of Indians stranded in the US due to the COVID-19 related travel restrictions have urged the government to help them return home.
The Indian Embassy, consulates and the Indian government are working hard to help cancer patients, pregnant women, students, stranded tourists and laid-off workers despite several challenges.
The consulate is also helping students with other services like finding accommodation since some university dormitories are closed. As per a PTI report, between May 9 to May 15, Air India operated flights from the US to India facilitating the return of stranded Indian nationals. The passengers were charged Rs 1 lakh for the one-way trip. “Every situation is critical and needs attention and we are making sure there is timely help available for all,” Consul General of India in Houston, Aseem Mahajan, was quoted as saying in a PTI report. “Flights to Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad will be from Chicago,” he added.
Students and other stranded citizens like those who travelled for emergency medical services are demanding to add more departure cities like Houston and Dallas with a sizeable Indian population.
In Houston Consular region itself, there are around 30,000 students from universities in eight states. Many students have left just before the lockdown and those who could not are ready to go after their semester exams last week.
“At this point, we have the constraint of sending people only to some destinations that have domestic flights and quarantine requirements. The constraints are internal in India due to no domestic travel until May 31 for now,” Mahajan said. “Also, at this point, nothing can be said about the resumption of commercial flights,” he added.
The ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ will see seven flights from the US in the second wave of evacuation. According to Mahajan, Phase II will cover Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal – through New York – Bangalore, and Kochi from San Francisco. There will also be flights to Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad from Chicago.
“The proportion of all consulates is the same. The reason for special flights from San Francisco, Chicago and New York is because Air India hubs are there. The closest hub for our Consular area comprising 8 states; Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska, is Chicago,” Mahajan said.
In the two flights each scheduled to depart from San Francisco and Washington DC; Chicago and New York, stranded tourists, terminally-ill patients, passengers with medical concerns and students are being given priority. All passengers on arrival in India will be medically screened and would have to download and register the Aarogya Setu app. Following protocols by the Indian government, they also will need to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine on arrival in India in institutional facilities on payment basis.
The Consulate, that gets more than 10,000 calls and emails on their helplines each day, has no discretion to make exceptions for the OCI cardholders or India-Americans needing to fly back to India.
For now, however, flights are for Indian nationals, who would need to pay the Indian government for the one-way ticket.
Are OCI Indians being short-changed?
Alia, an Indian in New York, who is an Overseas Citizen Of India (OCI) cardholder, just lost her father and has been awaiting permission to board the evacuation flight.
“My father passed away in Mumbai on April 26 and the elderly mother is helpless and in need of medical care. Please help me get to Mumbai urgently. There is no reply from the Indian Embassy in the US. Please help,” she said.
“At the time of a pandemic, who would like to leave their home and visit India, if this was not an emergency,” another OCI passport holder said.
As per a Times of India report, several Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders have urged the Indian government to allow them back into the country. The OCI card lets Indians with foreign citizenship to work and live in India. However, due to the pandemic, several of them have been stranded in the US.
Adhvut Chandane, an OCI card-holder from London was unable to attend the last rites of his father. He said that the embassy initially agreed to grant him an emergency visa. But when they got to know that he was an OCI, they rejected his request.
An official from the Union ministry of external affairs was quoted as saying in a Times of India report, "As per guidelines the person needs to approach the Indian High Commission in their country. The decision to allow people to fly back depends on case to case and the call is taken by the commission where the applicant approaches."
As per a PTI report, Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan participating in a virtual panel discussion with Indian-Americans on COVID-19, organised jointly by the Federation of Indian Associations and the Bihar Jharkhand Association of North America was flooded with queries over the OCI card issue. A large number of Indian citizens whose children are OCI cardholders and several people of Indian origin having the card are unable to travel to India, even for emergency reasons, because of the temporary suspension of their long-term visa.
“This is step-motherly treatment with people of Indian origin and against the very ethos and spirit behind it,” said Jaipur Foot USA chairman Prem Bhandari. India’s top leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Home Minister Amit Shah, are personally aware of it and they have no doubt whatsoever about the Indianness of the overseas Indian community, Muraleedharan said in response to a question.
“This is a great opportunity for the Indian diaspora to come and invest in India,” he added. The announcements by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the last five days are a clear indication of how and what the Indian diaspora should look for, he said.