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Closed borders, few flights leave NRIs struggling

The Vande Bharat flights that bring Indians stranded abroad back to the country, are also offering seats on their return journeys provided the country permits entry.

Updated: Jul 11, 2020 04:57 IST

By Rachel Lopez and Vanessa Viegas, Hindustan Times New Delhi

Nidhi Agarwal and her son have been stuck in India since March.

Not being able to leave home is one thing. Not being able to get there is another, especially for visiting non-resident Indians when the pandemic hit.

As they waited out the lockdowns — the borders were shut on March 22 and the latest announcement, made on Friday, confirmed that they will remain shut until at least July 31 — they risk losing their jobs even as they continue to pay rent on homes that sit vacant overseas; and they remain separated from loved ones whom they may not see for some months more.

Niklesh Sadarangani, 42, has been paying ~70,000 a month to rent a Singapore flat he and his wife Krishna Merchant, 35, haven’t used since December. That’s when they flew into India, a month before their first child was due. The idea was for Merchant, her mother and their baby to return to Singapore in March. Merchant would resume work as a journalist with a news agency and her mother would help with the baby while her husband established his car-polishing business in Mumbai and went back and forth.

“On the one hand, I’m happy to have these months with my son. But my business hasn’t started. We’re also paying rent on a warehouse in Mumbai. It’s all adding up,” Sadarangani said.

Plus, as NRIs, their tax structure is set to change if they don’t return to Singapore in the next 180 days or so. Meanwhile, the baby’s passport still hasn’t arrived, Covid-19 has disrupted his vaccination schedule, and the couple’s Singapore visas expire in October.

“Because Singapore is not open to visitors, I will most likely not be able to take my mother with me whenever I do head back, so there will be no help with the baby,” Merchant said. “What worries me the most is the uncertainty and our complete inability to plan ahead.”


A. Pereira, meanwhile, says that with every extension of the travel ban, his dream life slips a little further out of his grasp. The 33-year-old spent five years applying for hospitality positions in Canada. He finally got a job as a restaurant manager late last year, his visa was approved in mid-March.

“My employers have been quite understanding so far. But it is utterly frustrating,” he said.

The Vande Bharat flights that bring Indians stranded abroad back to the country, are also offering seats on their return journeys provided the country permits entry. However, lesser seats on account of social distancing norms and a low frequency means customers like Pereira have faced an uphill task booking a seat. “The flights are too few. The seats are all gone within an hour of bookings opening. I have just had no luck so far,” he said.

A long wait

In Bengaluru, Nidhi Agarwal, 33, a finance consultant, has been stuck in limbo since end-March. She flew in from Dubai with her son Shlok Dani, 3, for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary.

She now has no idea when she will get back. Her son’s schooling has become another source of worry.

“For now, he will attend classes online, but we don’t know if we will even be back in Dubai when schools reopen in September,” she said.

Alifya Tarawala, 25, a quantitative researcher flew from Dubai to Mumbai on March 13 to marry a business-development manager. Their wedding, scheduled for March 28 was brought forward to March 20 and their plans to return to Dubai were put on hold. The newlyweds are here with only what they packed for their wedding. “None of us even has a laptop,” Tarawala said. Two weeks ago, Tarawala was put on unpaid leave. It’s a blow for the couple, who is still paying rent on a home in Dubai that they have never used, and a car that’s been lying idle since March.

The Tarawalas are among over 2,000 members of a Facebook group called UAE Residents In India, who are now collectively pushing for a way back. The page, created by 27-year-old Dubai resident Mohit Mulchandani, is hoping to get the Indian government to allow carriers other than Air India to offer flights.

“We’re writing to the Prime Minister’s Office; we’re filing RTIs, but the responses so far have offered nothing concrete,” Mulchandani, who has been stuck here since March 9, said. “My finances are being depleted. My office has been supportive thus far but we don’t know for how long.”

Tarawala said that being able to turn to others in the same situation has helped keep her sane. “I’m bonding with my mother-in-law, so that’s a plus. But some days, I wake up and I can’t believe what’s happened,” she said.


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