Thousands of Indians, including students, stranded in the US for weeks because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, have requested the government to send flights to evacuate them and connect more cities like Houston and Dallas with a sizeable Indian population. Students and people who had travelled to America for medical treatment say they urgently need evacuation amid increasing financial strain.
There are around 30,000 students alone in the Houston Consular region, comprising eight US states - Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska - with top universities.
"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," an Indian man, who lost a family member and desperately wants to return, told news agency PTI.
Alia, an Indian in New York, who is an Overseas Citizen Of India (OCI) card holder, lost her father and has been waiting for a flight home as well.
"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.
There are also complaints about red-tapism getting in the way of the evacuation mission.
"My daughter is not just stranded in Houston but we have just learned that she will be stranded indefinitely until international airlines resume as she has an emotional support animal. Air India as a policy does not allow emotional support animals although they allow service dogs," Melissa Arulappan told NDTV.
Government officials said the Indian Embassy and consulates are working round the clock despite several challenges to cater to all emergencies, helping cancer patients, pregnant women, students, stranded tourists and laid-off workers. 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 flights from the US to India facilitating the return of stranded Indian nationals, charging around Rs 1 lakh for a one-way trip.
"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," Consul General of India in Houston, Aseem Mahajan, told PTI.
"Around 260 passengers have flown from our eight 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," he 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," Mr Mahajan said.
A total of seven flights from the US will be a part of the second wave of the evacuation programme dubbed "Vande Bharat Mission". Two flights are scheduled to depart from San Francisco, one from Washington DC, two from Chicago and two from New York.
Stranded passengers, terminally-ill patients, passengers with medical concerns and students are being given priority.
All passengers on arrival in India will be medically screened and would have to download and register the Aarogya Setu app. They also 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 Indian government.
(With inputs from PTI)