The US has imposed restrictions on Vande Bharat Mission, the Indian government’s initiative to repatriate its nationals stranded abroad and use the same flights to send back citizens of other countries stuck in India. As per the Donald Trump administration, the Vande Bharat Mission discriminates against American airlines as it only includes India’s national carrier Air India.
The programme, referred to as the history’s largest peace-time evacuation exercise, has already faced much criticism. Hong Kong citizen Aaliya Amrin shared her experience of travelling back home on a Vande Bharat Mission flight from Mumbai on June 4. From last-minute cancellations to indefinite delays and then dealing with racism in Hong Kong, below is the 26-year-old entrepreneur’s story as told to Quartz reporter Ananya Bhattacharya.
I’ve been working in India on and off for three years now. Around March 15, as Covid-19 broke out, my flatmates and I started self-isolating in our Mumbai apartment. On March 25, the Indian government imposed a lockdown, and we weren’t sure what that meant for travel.
Then, the lockdown kept getting extended with no sign of decline in Covid-19 cases in India. My flatmates were not from Mumbai either, and we were all fairly stressed out about reaching our families. We were happy to wait it out, but for how long?
As soon as the lockdown started, I emailed Hong Kong immigration and enlisted myself to be informed of any flights that can take me home.
There were over 3,000 stranded Hong Kong citizens in India, spread out across various states. Several online groups were formed to help spread information. We would take our issues to Twitter hoping for replies from government personnel but we were met with meaningless and vague responses; “be patient” and “we are working on it.”
Hong Kong, if anything, is operationally efficient, and all of us were thrown off by the wait and a lacklustre effort to bring thousands of us home. The families of those stranded were also making considerable efforts in Hong Kong with the Consular General of India there.
The first flight flew out of Delhi eight weeks into the lockdown.
We were informed via group chats that we may have to wait two weeks in between each flight so the Hong Kong government can prepare for our quarantine.
For the 10 weeks prior to the first flight, there were several attempts to fly on private charters by private airlines and some individuals. But we soon learnt that permissions were becoming increasingly difficult to get. A few private charters got very close, but the night before their flights, India’s home ministry intervened and blocked their attempts.
There was one such flight that I was meant to be on, which got cancelled the day before its departure.
There was very little chance of a non-Air India flight. Meanwhile, flights to the US and Canada were relatively laxer with airlines such as KLM and others being able to conduct business as usual. (From my friends who were on these flights, I can vouch that they also had a significantly smoother experience in-flight and leading up to it).
Two weeks after the Vande Bharat Mission flight from Delhi to Hong Kong, the first to the country, there was a flight from Mumbai. The Hong Kong immigration informed me that I would be on this flight. I was told to sit tight and wait for Air India to contact me as everything had to be part of the Vande Bharat Mission, optically speaking.
Some passengers waited days to be contacted while others were getting payment links for tickets. I never ended up getting a call or message from Air India. I had my dad, who was in Hong Kong at the time, rock up to the Air India office there the day before the flight and request to make the payment.
The process right up until boarding was a nightmare.
The flight kept getting delayed without forewarning or adequate reasoning, inconveniencing many pregnant women and elderly people. Many passengers had driven into Mumbai from other cities for this flight. These delays were poorly managed, badly communicated, and stressful to say the least.
Nearby hotels weren’t accepting travellers easily as they were operating at reduced capacity, if at all.
During this time passengers were not contacted by anyone from the Vande Bharat Mission or Air India. A few volunteers took it upon themselves to liaise between the airline and airport personnel and the passengers via our group chat. We were relying on the group chat to tell us what time to reach the airport, what the estimated time of departure was, and what forms we need to fill beforehand, among other things.
Most people who were stuck in India were visiting family or were on work trips or vacations. The fear of losing their jobs back in Hong Kong at the tail-end of three months was very real. Kids needed to get back to school and a lot of elderly people feared to catch the virus.
On my flight was an 86-year-old man travelling back alone to Hong Kong to reunite with his son and daughter. He had to deal with the stress of these flight delays alone as he had no one in Mumbai and was unable to keep up with the WhatsApp groups flooding his phone with hearsay updates.
For a flight that was based on priority and need, the Vande Bharat Mission failed to provide the bare minimum. The flight ticket was approximately HK$6,400 (Rs63,000), which is not cheap. We were later told the inbound tickets (Indians returning from Hong Kong) were priced lower.
Once in Hong Kong, the government has a mandated quarantine at a state-run facility for a fortnight for Indians.
At the facility, you get three meals served to you daily with fruits and snacks throughout the day, all paid for by the government. You can also order via UberEats or Deliveroo but since the facility is in Fo Tan, New Territories, there are not a lot of choices. I stuck to McDonald’s and Pizza Hut along with some deliveries from family. We didn’t have a fridge or a microwave so there was nowhere to keep perishable items or heat up the food.
Upon arriving, the sheets and pillowcases looked used so I opted to get my own bedding from home.
It’s a shell of a room. These buildings were initially made for low-income housing so there is no in-built air conditioning, nor can you arrange anything aside from a cooler for yourself and a few extra fans if you’ve got family to help deliver that to you. It was peak summertime, about 31 degrees celsius on average.
What makes the experience significantly better is that the staff is super friendly and very helpful.
There were several health and safety check-ups on a daily basis. We had to self-record our temperatures, and the health department would call us regularly to check on symptoms. We also had to take a saliva test on the twelfth day.
India is at the top of Hong Kong’s list for a strict 14-day quarantine at government facilities even though we were on a super strict nationwide lockdown for months.
I had friends return home from extremely high-risk cities like New York or London and go straight home to loved ones after taking a Covid-19 test at the airport. My sister who returned from London in March, when the UK was at its peak, was granted home quarantine. They had an electronic bracelet to monitor her.
I had been locked up in my Mumbai apartment for almost 80 days straight, tested negative upon landing, and yet I was not granted home or hotel quarantine. The double standards were obvious, the racism was evident.
This also meant there would be a capacity limit for the government to bring Indians home as they have a limited number of rooms to put us in.
The idea of putting yourself through two weeks of no outdoor activity, fresh air, comfort, or even some company is daunting for most, even a deterring factor for some. It’s a scary feeling not being able to go home when you want to. I’m grateful to be home finally and rooting for those still stranded to get back soon, too.
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