External Affairs

As Pressure Rises, MEA Suggests Allowing OCI Card Holders on Repatriation Flights in Due Course

However, officials said that there was no timeline for this proposal, which could be allowed “at some stage”.

New Delhi: While the programme to bring back Indians stranded abroad, on repatriation flights, has entered its second week, there is a particular group that has been out of its ambit, who have been clamouring to be included.

It is now learnt that the Ministry of External Affairs has suggested that certain categories of Overseas Citizen[s] Of India should be included in the operation. However, there may not be an immediate change in short term policy, based on the suggestion.

Even before the start of the operation, ‘Vande Bharat Mission,’ on May 7, the MEA and Indian missions had got repeated queries on whether foreign passport holders with OCI cards would be allowed to board the special flights. However, from the beginning, officials had ruled it out and said that the flights would be only for Indian nationals.

Also read: From May 7 Onwards, India to Bring Back ‘Distressed’ Nationals Stranded Abroad

But, as the days went on, the steady trickle of requests have turned into a torrent. “There has been a lot of pressure,” said an MEA official.

The Wire has learnt that MEA, based on the feedback, has written to the home ministry to allow for some categories of OCIs to be brought back on the flights. However, officials said that there was no timeline for this proposal which could be allowed “at some stage”.

India has stopped all incoming and outgoing international scheduled passenger flights since March 22. However, the visa-free travel facility granted to OCI card holders was suspended much earlier from March 13, which prevented them from travelling to India before the lockdown began.

The rationale to only have Indian nationals on board the repatriation flights was not surprising, especially since the government is dealing with large numbers.

As per the latest annual report of MEA, more than 34 lakh OCI cards have been issued. The OCI card system was launched in August 2005, with the main provision being a life-long visa for visiting India. Despite the name, the card holder does not become an Indian citizen – or have voting rights in the country.

When missions abroad began the exercise to estimate the number of Indian nationals, the figures proved daunting. Till now, over 1.8 lakh people have registered.

After the home ministry provided the guidelines for filtering out only “compelling cases”, MEA drew up the list of passengers who fulfilled those criteria.

So far, over 12,000 Indian nationals have been brought back in 56 flights from 12 countries.

“It was during the operation of Vande Bharat that we were getting a lot of requests from Indian nationals who were scheduled to travel, that their minor children are OCI holders. Since rules doesn’t allow OCI holders to be on the flights, they dropped out. They didn’t want to be separated,” he said.

Besides, there were also many students abroad holding OCI card with foreign passports, but their families were Indian nationals and living in India. “The assumption that we had was many of the OCI card holders were in developed countries, comfortably well off and settled. But, if they are students, that is not the case”.

There were many cases of Indian students with OCI cards stranded abroad highlighted on twitter with their parents posting with the hashtag ‘#getourkidsback”.

One of the main concerns about allowing OCI card holders in the flights was the availability of quarantine facilities. As per the standard operation procedure, all travellers on the repatriation flights will have to undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days in institutional facilities, which is administered and supervised directly by state governments.

“There is a co-relation between how many people we can get back and capacity of quarantine centres”.

Currently, state governments have arranged for paid quarantine in both public and private facilities like hotels. 

As per MEA records, nearly all the flights are returning fully packed. If there is any review in policy, it will have to be at the end of the second phase, when the first batch would have finished their quarantine period. “It will happen at some stage, after MHA has taken a comprehensive view,” said the official.

However, with 1.8 lakh registered Indian nationals with “compelling reasons” to return – the wait for OCI card holders may be longer. “Once we meet the minimum expectation of our nationals, we will be able to meet others too,” said sources on Thursday.

The second phase, which overlaps with first one, begins on May 17. This next phase will expand the coverage of countries from 12 to 31 and introduce a hub-and-spoke model for flights. This means that one flight can go to at least two domestic destinations to offload passengers.

Meanwhile, there is a continuous stream of tweets tagging Indian government ministers and ministries to bring attention to the urgent requirement for many OCI holders to return to India. Most of them fell into the categories of “compelling reasons” drawn up by MHA, which range from unemployed or fired workers, family emergency and pregnant women.

There were several cases where couples and families feared being separated as they had different nationalities.

Incidentally, India had allowed foreign spouses and nationals when evacuation flights were operated from China before the lockdown. However, officials pointed out that those flights were made on an emergency basis as Wuhan had been the epicentre of the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.