Going Home: First flight from tri-state left for India as part of biggest COVID-19 repatriation plan

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Prior to boarding the Air India repatriation flight from Liberty International Airport, Newark, May 10, 2020,
night, each passenger was screened for body temperature, before being cleared for boarding. (Photo: Vijay Shah, Consulate General of India in New York)

Ruhshad Bharda, a student from New York University, is about to go through security check at Liberty International Airport, Newark, on his way to India May 10th night, Mother’s Day.

“I am very relieved,” Bharda, who is enrolled at NYU for a Masters in Technology, said. “I almost did not get a ticket but then somehow Air India and the Consulate made it possible.”

Bharda had “some family issue” he did not want to detail, and now he can be there to attend to it. He expects to be back in New York by Aug. 10, 2020, when his second year begins.

According to Bharda, things were being managed well at the airport and people were maintaining social distance. He is not sure about what will be the seating pattern inside the plane.

He is okay with the mandated 14-day quarantine he will have to undergo when he disembarks in India. And he is paying a hefty sum for both the flight and the quarantine. There’s no free lunch for those getting on to India’s massive #VandeBharatMission for evacuating some 15,000 citizens in 12 countries between May 9 and 15.

The next flight out of Liberty International will be on  May 14.

According to the latest May 12, 2020 information from the Government of India, 6037 Indians have been flown back in 31 inbound flights operated by Air India and Air India Express in the 5 days beginning from 7th May 2020.

Launch

The first Air India flight out of the United States bound for India carrying citizens of that country back home left San Francisco May 9, 2020. That went smoothly going by tweets and photos from India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Taranjit Singh Sandhu.

India’s plan began unfolding when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted May 5, he was mobilizing the mass evacuation of close to 15,000 Indians from 12 countries starting May 7 to 15, on 64 flights and several ships.

Flights out of the U.S. were scheduled to begin May 9 (See Table)

Government of India schedule for flights from the U.S. to India between May 7 and 15, part of the #VandeBharatMission to repatriate 14,800 people from 12 countries back to their homes. (Photo: Indianembassyusa.gov.in)

India’s Consul General in New York Sandeep Chakravorty, told News India Times 20,000 people in the U.S. had registered, (give or take a few thousand due to duplication), within the first couple of days on the form available on the Indian Embassy website.

The hashtag for the program (#VandeBharatMission) went viral around the world with concerned Indian citizens hoping they could be included.

The 12 countries selected for what could be just the first tranche of the evacuation plan, include United States, UAE, United Kingdom, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman.

Responses from Indians around the world show obviously, that many are in countries not on this list.

Tweets from Maldives to Malawi, Kazakhstan to Comoros, Nigeria where rajkumarsameer723 tweeted that 150 Indians are stuck in Logos, 12 engineers in Christchurch, New Zealand, someone from Guinea, West Africa, others asking about Sweden, the Benelux countries, Germany, it is almost endless.

Conditions

The May 5 directive from the Government of India said New Delhi would be “facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds in a phased manner,” Consul General Chakravorty notes. “We expect the

Indian nationals in the U.S. were given the link to a Registration Form (https://indianembassyusa.gov.in/reg_indian_nationals) that each had to fill with relevant information for planning purposes. Medical screening of passengers would be done before boarding the flight and only asymptomatic passengers would be allowed to travel.

Once they reach India, they would require to be screened for the virus, register on the Arogya Setu app, and put in mandatory quarantine for fourteen days, screened again before being released to go to their respective homes.

Passengers have to pay for their travel, but also for the quarantine, a sticking point for students who complained on social media that they do not have that kind of money. Some from the U.S. also wished for some slack in pricing

Parveen Goyal from the U.S., asked, “Dear @DrSJaishankar, heard that government will be charging 1lakh rupees per person from USA. If someone is stranded, will it be possible for them to have so much cash? Any thoughts given for the pricing? And subsequent quarantine?

Biren Shah asked from New Jersey, “I’m stranded Indian (sic) in New Jersey & was to return back to India with my family on 4/25. Due to lockdown, we are stuck now, have registered with Embassy for evacuation flights, but revert yet. Can we have clarity and plan? Embassy not answering calls nor giving any clarity. Please help.”

New Delhi is very clear that those interested in returning must follow  the protocols and procedures not just outlined by India, but also including Health Protocols issued by Washington.

Consul General’s Account

“The basic point is there was a hue and cry that we don’t take care of our people. But as soon as we could we made this huge plan,” Consul General Chakravorty told News India Times.

India’s Consul General in New York Sandeep Chakravorty, 2nd from left facing camera, with other consular staff and a family traveling to India from Liberty International Airport, Newark, May 10, 2020 night, as part of the massive repatriation effort launched by New Delhi to bring back Indian citizens from various countries. (Photo: Vijay Shah, Consulate General of India in New York)

Chakravorty estimates the ultimate number registered will be 14,000 to 15,000, because of various reasons — duplicate registrations, issues of travel such as cost, or lack of a compelling reason, the 14-day quarantine in India upon arrival, etc. “A lot of people don’t want to go through the quarantine. Plus if you land in Mumbai and have to go to Bangalore, there is a lockdown still,” he noted.

“We have a full flight going on May 10, from Liberty International Airport to Mumbai and Ahmedabad,” Chakravorty noted. And things appear to have gone according to plan, a condition he said, on which hinged any expanded repatriation plans in the future.

“We started with from where there will be greatest demand,” Chakravorty said. He hopes lockdowns are over soon so people in different part of India could reach their final destinations more easily.

The “compelling reasons” for which registration was done included medical emergencies, return due to bereavement in the family, pregnant women and the elderly, and those facing U.S. visa expiry, and students, Bharda of NYU may have been granted the ticket because of a family issue which was compelling enough and because he is a student.

The New York Consulate is receiving anywhere from 500 to 1,500 calls a day, the Consul General indicated.

“They all want to go back. Nobody said they won’t go because of the money (price of the ticket), People are emotional. They would rather be jobless in India than here. It is easier”

He nixed the idea that students could not afford to go home because of the price of the ticket. “I don’t accept that explanation about students. They come from well-to-do families if they are here to study. Also, families can take loans and transfer the money here,” Chakravorty said.

“Besides, we have taken care of lots of students here, paid their bills, delivered food. That’s a whole other story,” the Consul General said.

He also thanked the Indian-American community for its support. “But we cannot ask anyone to help as we had to work in a small team due to privacy concerns,” he said.

With the plans already being executed, “Many community people will help us. I need help from people who know how to use laser instruments to take temperatures at the airport for example. Indian-Americans have said they would help get the doctors for that. Others have given us information about the credibility of some applicants, etc.”

At Liberty International Airport, one could see someone taking the temperature of every passenger.

About more flights after May 15, “We want to see the experience from this week and it will depend on that what we do next week.”

Global Reach

The Tweets responding to External Affairs Minister Jaishankar reveal how expansive the Indian diaspora is and the job of attending to all may appear daunting. But the global spread of consulates and embassies appear to be dealing with the issues as they arise.

For example, Rakesh Kumar Chauhan pleaded for help tweeting in Hindi using the English alphabet to say he is stuck for the last two months in Saudi Arabia and has no money.

Chauhan got a reply from the Indian Consulate in Saudi Arabia – someone named Seema Sharma, who told him for starters, to fill the form on the Indian Embassy page on the website.

On May 7, when the phased evacuation began, the Indian Navy dispatched ships with medical teams and aid supplies to several countries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which on their return will have their holds full of Indian national evacuees, the Press Information Bureau said in its press release.

Indian Armed Forces meanwhile, have kept six quarantine facilities in Jodhpur,  Jaisalmer, Bhopal, Kochi, Vishakhapatnam and Chennai. that can accommodate up to 2,100 citizens from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Malaysia,

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