Twenty-three-year-old Rahul V., an MBA student in East London, first heard about Air India flights coming to the United Kingdom from a British government website he has been tracking for the past two weeks, ever since India banned travel for passengers from the U.K. due to the coronavirus pandemic . The student from Hyderabad, one of hundreds stranded in the U.K., among the about 25,000 Indians stranded in different parts of the world, says he felt let down when he was informed that the flights would go back to India empty as the government has refused to lift its strict ban on any passengers, including Indian citizens, to enter India.
“The British government is bringing its people home, despite the pandemic, it’s just sad that the Indian government isn’t doing the same,” he told The Hindu , disappointed that despite several flights being operated to the U.K. from April 4 by the national carrier, he cannot return home on them.
No change in rules
Indian missions in several other capitals are facing similar questions from thousands of Indian citizens who are stranded and need to return. Air India announced on Thursday that it would operate chartered flights to Paris, Frankfurt and London for citizens of the U.K., Germany, France, Canada and Ireland . In Germany, dozens of students recorded a videotaped appeal to the government, offering to pay full fare if Air India flights would accept passengers on the way back. However, the government says it will not change its decision to not allow any passengers, including Indians, to fly here from about 37 coronavirus-affected countries, until the lockdown ends, as it is due to, on April 15.
“We are asking stranded Indians to stay put wherever they are in view of local restrictions as well as travelling restrictions to and within India. This is good for their own health and safety as well as that of their family and larger community,” a Ministry of External Affairs official told The Hindu .
Among the Indians stranded worldwide are students whose universities are shut down, business travellers who were unable to return in time before the shutdown, and tourists who were stopped from boarding when the Indian travel bans went into place. The MEA did acknowledge that some of them had been stopped wrongfully, as airlines read the travel deadlines overzealously or misinterpreted them, but pleaded helplessness at changing the rules for their return.
Officials also point out that it will take some days to clear the backlog of passengers given their numbers, depending on how quickly regular commercial flights will be allowed to resume. Many of the passengers will need assistance as they have spent money buying tickets on airlines that cancelled flights and are unable to afford another full fare ticket. Finally, there remain questions about quarantine requirements for all those passengers returning home, given the limited quarantine capacity in India, and the Ministry of Health would have to take a decision on whether they can return right after the lockdown is lifted.
“Most of the students here are desperate now, and have no money. They are willing to do any job, even if it means catching the virus, because they are struggling to survive,” said Mr. Rahul, one of the several students The Hindu spoke to.
Reaching out daily
On the Indian High Commission’s helpline, and social media portals, several students like Mr. Rahul call or write in everyday, describing their problems, including details of ailing parents back home, health problems they have, trouble with the long supermarket queues for food, and difficulties in finding accommodation. Officials say they are coordinating their requests as much as possible, and have had to reach out to local NGOs and food aid groups as well as Indian student associations to help.