Indian nationals stranded in US by lockdown enter lottery for Air India flights home starting May 8 from SFO

Ritu Jha-

Wanting to return to their homeland, a couple of thousands of Indians stranded in the US have joined a Facebook group looking to evacuate Indian nationals from the US back to India.

But with India’s complete lockdown putting a ban on commercial flights, to stop the further spread of the coronavirus, things seem bleak for them.

As more cases continued to come to light, the Indian Embassy in Washington uploaded a return -form with guidelines of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. The press release by MHA states that the Government of India will be facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds in a phased manner. This time, however, the travelers will have to bear the expense of it.

India, which has had around 43,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,389 deaths from the virus, has been on lockdown since March 24, and the lockdown 3.0 will last till May 17. The lockdown has closed all nonessential businesses, public transportation, and international travel on commercial flights.

More than 2,800 people have joined a Facebook group called “USA TO INDIA EVACUATION FLIGHTS,” where members have banded together petitioning the Indian Embassy in the US to send them home. But the Indian Embassy has not yet informed them when the fights to India would be available though the government has released a form, a first step after pressure from its citizens and Indian American children whose parents are stuck here and are in need of their medications.

One of the members of the Facebook group, who is a resident of Fremont in California, Nidhi (wants to go just by her first name), whose parents came to the US in December, told indica they have to go back to Gujarat. Their return ticket was dated March 28 but could not go because of the lockdown.

“My mother is a diabetic and needs medicine, “ Nidhi said and added she, like many, have filled the form on May 4, the day it was released by the Indian Embassy, but they later learned there is a lottery system.

When indica reached out to the Indian consulate in San Francisco Sumati Rao said, “Yes, there is a centralized digital lottery system happening.”

And where people with a medical emergency would be given preference.

The deadline to fill the form depends on which place the flight is happening, she said, adding that most probably the flight from San Francisco would start on May 8.  The process of informing the family will start tonight.

When asked how nationals who want to get on the flight are going to buy tickets, she said that selected travelers would be given authorization and link to Air India.

“Only people selected would be given the Air India link,” she emphasized.

When asked how much the passengers will pay, she said that Air India would set that up but could be economy class, possibly around $1,400.

Although she couldn’t say how many people will be on one of the flights, across the US more than 25,000 to 30,00 people have filled up the form.

“There is a  lot of duplication,” she said. The registration form clearly mentioned not to fill it out twice, but people have filled not just double but three or four times.

Nidhi, who sounded worried, said she’s not sure her family members would get into the lottery and the Indian government has not mentioned how to buy the tickets or whether her parents form got an approval to fly.

Just flying back to India is not an issue but what would happen once they reach India, how would they go to Gujarat. Is still in question.

The COVID-19 numbers are rising in India each said. “Even after all you don’t know if you reach home safely.”

And in addition to paying to get home to India, they’ll have to pay in India for quarantine, medicine, and visa extension.

She said called the Indian embassy, but no one is answering the phone, she said.

The consulate confirmed people would be paying for 14 days of quarantine stay once they arrive in India.

When asked which airline she bought the return flight, Nidhi said it was Air India but through an online third party service. So that money she has lost.

The Indian Embassy on May 4 released a form for the Indians stranded in US, wishing to go home. The residents will be taken back to the country in a phased manner, according to the website. “All passengers will be required to sign an Undertaking, which will be collected from them before boarding the flight,” according to the website.

According to the form, it is mandatory for them to undergo a 14-day quarantine either in a hospital or in an institutional quarantine on payment-basis, on arrival in India as per the protocols framed by the Indian Government of India, bear the expenses of travel and quarantine for themselves and their family members,  abide by the instructions and requirements as detailed by the crew of the flight/Embassy or Consulate/Government of India/medical personnel before, during and after boarding of the flight, and also after disembarkation at the designated airport in India, and, submit the undertaking as provided to authorized Embassy/ Consulate staff before boarding the flight and register on the Aarogya Setu App on reaching destination.

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