NEW YORK – The Modi Govt. must be lauded for its ongoing massive operation to fly Indian citizens back home worldwide. The ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ has been timely, organized and efficient, with sufficient flights being added since its inception, to take care of all those who wish to travel back to India – on a priority basis, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, in another welcome news, the Indian government today issued orders to resume travel services for most Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders, a longstanding demand from the Indian Diaspora.
According to the Indian government’s order, OCI cardholders who can now travel to India include minor children with foreign passports; those who want to travel for family emergencies; couples where one spouse is an OCI cardholder and the other is an Indian national and they have permanent residence in India; and students who are OCI cardholders but whose parents are Indian citizens living in India.
Some loopholes remain, though, and might be a deterrent for travel.
The Indian government had issued orders for all PIO cards to be converted to OCI cards. They had extended the dateline till later this year, as many NRIs were caught unawares by those rules when first announced, with some travelers being even turned back from airports.
However, once the pandemic struck, services to convert the PIO cards, by the overseas Indian Embassies and Consulates and affiliate partners, were shuttered. Many who wish to travel on an existing PIO card might face difficulties at airports, on the way to India, or on the way back.
Also, in limbo might be those PIO/OCI cardholders whose foreign passports have either expired or have less than six months’ time left for expiry; and wish to travel to India. Given the current scenario where international and domestic travel rules are fluid, changing almost within days, according to circumstances, many would hesitate to travel with the fear of not being allowed to travel back to the United States, or else stranded in India with no way out.
US laws only allow a maximum of six months of normal overseas stay for Green Card holders, and beyond that, individuals who reenter the country would be questioned at the border for their overstay, and be allowed in at the discretion of officers manning duty at airports.
With the Trump Administration’s recent aggressive anti-immigration measures, travelers – especially those on a visa, would, in all likelihood, think twice before venturing overseas with the pandemic not showing any signs of abating in the US or India.
According to a report in The Hindustan Times, around 200,000 Indian nationals have registered with India’s foreign affairs ministry seeking to return back home. The government is prioritizing travel of those with compelling reasons, like individuals on a visa who have lost their job; pregnant women, and those with medical emergencies.
While the news on the OCI front is welcome, the Indian government should make rules pertaining to quarantine hotels upon getting off from Indian airports, and facilities being offered there, including medical procedures for check-up, more transparent, to reassure those NRIs who wish to travel to India.
In March and April, there were several reports condemning the poor housing facilities and amenities being offered at government-sponsored free quarantine centers. Thereafter, the Indian government also made available some hotels around major cities in India for travelers who wished to pay for comfort while waiting out the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
However, some reports this week in the Indian media again raises concern at the quality of those facilities. Elderly travelers would be cautious of trying out the experience for themselves, as well as those with children, and pregnant women.
News 18, an affiliate of CNN, reported that some Bengaluru residents who recently returned to the state and have been compulsorily quarantined at one of the city hotels have raised allegations of being approached by individuals to make payments to evade the 14-day quarantine.
The quarantined inmates said after spending three nights at the hotel, many began to get restless as no official or medical staff came to conduct any test or provide further guidelines. When an official was asked for a timeline, he simply told them he could get some them out of the hotels for a price, the report said.
Travelers complained they had opted for low-cost accommodation, but were brought to a more expensive hotel. Once there, there were different prices for rooms. There were complaints of price gouging too, on every product or service made available to those quarantined.
Despite government orders to not allow children, elderly, and pregnant women to be quarantined, the report said, many falling into these categories have been quarantined.
The Week reported this week a similar complaint from some pregnant women who got off at Manguluru, in Karnataka. A total of 355 people, who arrived at the Mangaluru international airport by two special flights, on May 12 and 18, are now under 14-day institutional quarantine across the designated hotels and free hostels, the report said.
A pregnant woman who had traveled to India to terminate her pregnancy, complained that she was paying Rs. 4,200 per day for the stay and additional food bills.
The Indian government and state government is, however, taking note of the complaints, and action seems to be gaining momentum.
Outlook reported that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Friday took stock of the situation in coronavirus quarantine centers in the state through video conferencing. He interacted with some of the travelers staying in 20 quarantine centers spread across 10 districts. A District Magistrates of those district were also linked with Kumar, on the calls.
A major concern for international air travelers is also the quarantine itself, and the fear of how many times they may have to go through it, before finally reaching home at their destination. Somebody traveling from the US, who gets off in Delhi, and then has to take a flight to say Bengaluru, would be according to current laws, have to be quarantined twice, for two 14-day stay periods. For those travelers going on an emergency, it would be futile to travel under these circumstances.
As the pandemic abates, and international travel resumes, there will be a mighty rush to travel back to India. As well as those who wish to travel overseas for business, and for personal reasons. There’s no way of predicting when this would happen, but there is already speculative reports of travelers being required to issue a vaccination certificate, or even antibody test results, to avoid being quarantined.
In a world turned upside down by the pandemic, it’s perhaps best not to speculate too far into the future.
What’s important today, though, is more transparency for desperate international travelers. Make him feel at home. Not as a hapless victim of circumstances.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)