Don’t fly empty planes. This is the only demand that a group of around 1000 NRIs have from the Indian Government. This, after the Ministry of Home Affairs, announced that they will send multiple aircrafts to evacuate the lakhs of Indian citizens stranded abroad, touted to be one of the world's biggest operations amid the global pandemic.
However, closer to home, around 800 US-based Indians cry for help, threatened by what this global pandemic and lockdown could cost them. Their job, their livelihood, their families, and their future.
“I came on February 13 for my mom's surgeries and I’m stuck since then,” said a five-month pregnant soon-to-be mother who wished to stay anonymous. Stuck amid the grief of her mom’s surgery, she now is stranded in Hyderabad yearning for home. “I want to get back to my husband to take me to my doctor and help me. I have already missed multiple doctor appointments in the USA.”
Adding on to the pressure is US President Donald Trump’s uncertainty surrounding the revised rules for H1-B visas. The current H-1B visa rules require certain professionals, along with their family members, to leave the United States within 60 days of job loss. Since the NRIs stranded here can not report to work, many have been threatened to be laid-off, something that could result in them losing everything that they have worked for over decades.
"Most of us are on work visas. Our stay in the US is directly tied to our employment. If say someone gets laid off or terminated while they are in India, they won't be able to return. Which means they can't go back to their families, their homes...Nothing at all," said Shashank Ashtikar, a Silicon Valley techie who is stranded here.
India is currently in its third phase of lockdown with no certainty of how things could turn out in the near future. Most of the stranded NRIs had flown in to India for emergencies, haven taken short leave from their workplaces in the US. With the lockdown suddenly being dropped on the midnight of March 24, many have not reported to work for over 40 days now.
The US also seems to be battling its own crisis. Being the worst-hit country during the pandemic, and the IMF predicting a major recession to kick-in, life does not seem brighter for the NRIs even in a post-pandemic world. In this situation, it is extremely imperative for them to make it back on time and hold on to whatever is left for them back in the states, to safeguard themselves from being laid off.
“Lots of NRIs are stuck in India away from families, on the verge of losing jobs, visa expirations, with a financial crisis about to take over us. If we can’t go back to the US our life will be mere chaos. Please help us,” said Aravind Bijjala.
Along with repeated attempts of reaching out to the Centre and the MEA, the NRIs have also started an online petition to try and gain more attention to their problem. In a petition on Change.org, called 'Start International Flights in India', the NRIs have expressed their distress asking the government to resume outbound flights, so that they can fly out of India to their respective destinations. Most of them argue that outbound flights do not pose a health concern. The petition has received over 8000 signatures to date.
“I am a daughter who has lost her mother and a mother who can’t be with her minor kids.” This was the first thing that Poorva Dixit Talathi said while describing what she was going through. During these 41 odd days that India has been under lockdown, Poorva has not only lost her mother but has also had no time to grieve.
"I travelled to Mumbai on an emergency to take care of my ailing Mother. My kids aged 5yrs and 3 yrs stayed back with my Husband in California. Unfortunately, my mom lost her battle to life on March 24. By then everything was under lockdown in India. Performing her rituals was a huge battle in itself. Younger one barely understands why mom is not coming back," said Poorva. "I have already lost my mom and being away from my kids is killing me daily. Haven't been able to grieve for my mother's demise as I am busy finding ways to go back to the US," she added.
Rashmi, another NRI stranded in India revealed that she flew in to the country to perform her mother’s last rites, leaving back home her 8-year-old son who is autistic. “I came to India because my mom passed away suddenly. I am stuck here now. I need to go back home to my family and especially my 8-year-old autistic son who really needs me.”
The NRIs have only one request from the Government-- to start outbound flights. If not, send them back on the empty flights being sent to evacuate Indian citizens from the US.
While the US focuses on safeguarding the interests of its citizens and India gears up to launch the biggest operation worldwide to evacuate its people, NRIs who fall in the grey area, continue to reach out for help, the gravity of their circumstances being overshadowed.