Stuck at Kuala Lumpur airport for six days, a group of 113 Indians finally made their way back to Chennai on Monday night, as the government said it was winding up efforts to bring back Indian passengers who are in transit at several international airports. However, hundreds of others who were not inside the airports as transit passengers, but were staying in city areas around the world, will probably not be able to return until commercial flight restrictions are lifted, as currently expected, on March 29.
“There are now just a few Indian nationals who are stranded as transit passengers in different airports, and we are trying to bring them all back,” said Dammu Ravi, additional secretary in the MEA, who is coordinating the international evacuation effort.
Stranded in Iran
“We brought back those who were stuck in Amsterdam on Sunday night and we hope to bring home the rest,” he added. About 17 Indians are stuck at London’s Heathrow airport, and about 400 Indians are in Iran, for whom special flights may be arranged, after which no special flights are being planned, officials said.
Among those in the group coming from Kuala Lumpur were about 80 employees from the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), who had travelled to Malaysia on an assignment on March 1.
Last week they were issued tickets on a Sri Lankan airline flight to Colombo, but were turned away just before they boarded the plane, after the Indian Health Ministry and DGCA reportedly refused clearance. Around 20 of them who did fly to Colombo, were forced to return by the same flight, and spend the next few days and nights on the carpeted floor in one section of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
“Despite all the hardships, they refused to return to Kuala Lumpur city in case they missed a chance to leave. Above all they feared being abandoned by India, and having nowhere to go in Malaysia, where the coronavirus situation has worsened,” R. Venkataraman, a relative of one of the TCS employees, told The Hindu, expressing relief that they were finally coming home.
Housed in hostels
However, the Air Asia flight on Monday was unable to bring back hundreds of others, that the Indian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said it had taken to “different hostels, hotels…in close coordination with local NGOs and community organisations,” as these were no longer transit passengers and did not comply with the government’s March 17 travel advisory that had prohibited all passengers from Malaysia, Afghanistan and the Philippines.
Malaysia has about 1,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and its military has now been deployed to ensure people stay home.
A video circulated widely had caused the government some embarrassment as it showed angry Indian passengers at KLIA asking why they were the only nationality not being repatriated despite having paid for air tickets. “Our money is finished and we have no money for food. No other country has people stuck here…only Indians have been left behind. Are they waiting for us to get coronavirus too?” asked a visibly agitated passenger who identified himself as Amarjeet Singh.
With evacuations nearly completed for all Indian transit passengers worldwide, the focus is shifting to facilitating special flights for thousands of tourists and foreign nationals who are still stranded in India, who have not been able to fly out after India banned flights from about 37 countries on March 16, and subsequently shut down all commercial airlines operations from March 22-29, officials said.