Houston: Thousands of Indians, including students, stranded in the US for weeks due to the COVID-19 related travel restrictions, are urging the government to operate additional flights to evacuate them and add more departure cities like Houston and Dallas with sizeable Indian population.
The worst affected people by this humanitarian crisis are the students, and emergency medical tourists, who need evacuation badly to avoid further financial strain.
There are around 30,000 students alone in the Houston Consular region, comprising eight US states with top universities.
Many students have left just before the lockdown and those who could not are ready to go after their semester exams last week.
An Indian national, who lost his close family and is desperately wanting to be home said, “If Air India can fly and charge exorbitant prices in the name of helping stranded Indians, then why doesn’t India let private airlines fly.
“This is not a help, instead, it’s robbing people, charging round trip fare for one way and still not letting the deserving people go,” he said.
One of the netizens, Prasad Bhalekar tweeted that if India was really worried, then one has to plan according to that.
“Please show the real percentage (5 to 10 per cent Phase I & II) of evacuation to Indians.” he tweeted.
Alia, an Indian in New York, who is an Overseas Citizen Of India (OCI) card holder, 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.
Dipti, from Faridabad, Haryana, is in Houston with her young brother for his treatment at the Medical Center since January.
She is “eagerly waiting” for a positive response for evacuation in phase II, as her four-year-old son is away from her in India for the past 80 days.
The Indian Embassy and consulates are working round the clock and facing challenges to cater to all emergencies, helping cancer patients, pregnant women, students, stranded tourists, laid-off workers and persons wanting to go home due to deaths in the family and expired visas.
Consulate helplines receive over 10,000 emails and calls daily.
Consulate officials said that they are not just helping with flights but also offering assistance by helping students with accommodation and essential services as their university and college dormitories closed down in March.
From May 9 to May 15, Air India operated commercial flights from the US to India facilitating the return of stranded Indian nationals.
Consul General of India in Houston, Aseem Mahajan, told PTI in an interview that, “We are facing a unique humanitarian crisis that has taken everyone unawares and impacted all. Every situation is critical and needs attention and we are making sure there is timely help available for all.
“Around 260 passengers have flown from our 8 states; destinations covered so far are Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi from Chicago,” he said.
“In phase II, we are covering Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal – through New York – Bangalore, and Kochi from San Francisco. Flights to Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad will be 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.
“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,” he said.
“Also, at this point, nothing can be said about the resumption of commercial flights,” Mahajan said.
A total of seven flights from the US will be a part of the second phase break down.
Two flights are scheduled to depart from San Francisco, one from DC, two from Chicago and other two from New York.
Mahajan said “it has been a relentless and non-stop work” to coordinate the repatriation exercise and we are making sure not even one seat on the flight goes vacant” since a large number of Indians are stranded in the US due to various reasons and they are “desperate” to go home.
Priority is being given to stranded passengers, terminally-ill patients, passengers with medical concerns and students.
As of now, the flights are limited to Indian nationals only, who would have to reimburse the Indian government for the one-way ticket.
The Consulate has no discretion to make exceptions for the OCI cardholders or Indian-Americans needing to fly back to India.
All passengers on arrival in India will be medically screened and would have to download and register the Aarogya Setu app.
Further, all passengers will need to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine on arrival in India in institutional facilities on payment basis as per the protocols framed by the Government of India.