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.
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.
@DrSJaishankar @HardeepSPuri @PMOIndia @cgivancouver Sir me and my wife are Indian citizens and our daughter is having OCI card. We have registered for VandeBharatMissikn but got informed that our two year old kid is not allowed. Please consider OCI for kids, how can we travel?
— Giriraj Sahu (@BioGiriraj) May 14, 2020
We’ve been selected but couldn’t be able to travel due restriction to my infant son who’s holding OCI. Hope they will consider our scenario and provide exception.
— Sukumar Tamilselvan (@sukumar_ts) May 10, 2020
@HardeepSPuri Sir I am from SFO, my father-in-law passed away this morning. And we need to urgently travel to Gujarat, along with our newborn. At present OCI are not permitted to enter India but the kid is hardly a month old and none of the parents can leave him alone. TIA.
— Rushi (@rushirr) May 13, 2020
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”.
Hi my daughter a student and OCI holder stuck in USA. Her fall semester is also going to be online. Please let my daughter come home. As she is scared and missing us during this pandemic @PMOIndia @MEAIndia @PIBHomeAffairs #getourkidsback
— anitha vankayala (@VankayalaAnitha) May 8, 2020
#getourkidsback @PMOIndia @AmitShahOffice @DrSJaishankar My OCI son wasn’t able 2 talk last night trying 2 fight back his tears. He’s unable to manage. No proper place to stay. No proper food to eat. I am trusting that you will get them back soon. Please help. We are desparate 🙏 https://t.co/b2hb48VvQW
— Sunil Kumar (@sunilimr) May 13, 2020
#getourkidsback#getourkidsback : Second phase pf evacuation plan published but OCI kids are forgotten again. Please help the kids come back home to their parents in India. My daughter is stranded in US and we don’t know what to tell her. Please help.
— AKRoy (@royashis16) May 13, 2020
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.
Somsuddha Dasgupta, an OCI Cardholder in LON lost his father in MUM 4 days ago. He has been liaising with HCI UK for 4 days with the death certificate to board a flight to no success. A fathers death should be considered to allow for travel. Pls help!! @OIA_MEA @meaMADAD
— Chandrashekhar Gopinathan (@Chandra02231886) May 12, 2020
There were several cases where couples and families feared being separated as they had different nationalities.
— Shabala Paul (@Shabalapaul) May 13, 2020
Sir i am a mother of three children my children are waiting for me in india they are very stress i am singapore citizen with indian oci my husband and children are indian citizen please start international flight let me there with them help
— Nazminbanu (@Nazminbanu1) May 11, 2020
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.