The woman recounts her difficulties in securing a Vande Bharat Mission flight out of India and back to her family in Germany.

A photo of Sangeetha Nair
news Vande Bharat Mission Tuesday, June 02, 2020 - 17:05
Written by  Sangeetha Nair

This is the time to wash your hands thoroughly, but little did I know it would become a metaphor for alienation. I am a German-resident stuck in India due to the COVID-19 lockdown. The kind no one really writes about unless the word remittance is somehow involved. There are thousands of NRIs like me trapped here. All you need to do is log into one of the foreign Embassy FB pages to hear our desperate pleas. One parent begs German Ambassador Linder, because he is stranded here with his infant son while his wife is back in Berlin, another is seeking to understand the protocol for Blue Card visa extension, where one can stay out of EU only for a period of six months at a stretch as its resident. That visa extension timeline is fast catching up for me, so imagine my horror when I realised that the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) flight out of India is in all probability rigged and the common passenger cannot make a booking!

I’ve had terrible luck trying to leave India since March. First I applied for the German government’s Rueckholprogramme which was communicated only at hotels so European tourists could get out of India. By the time I read the news and applied for the programme, I received an email from the German embassy staff saying preference will be given to tourists. Fair enough. They asked me to hold on as more evacuation flights were on its way. True to word, there were plenty of flights from Switzerland, Holland, Finland, France and I watched flight after flight take off from Delhi because the national lockdown made inter-state travel difficult.

I am considerably lucky. I live in Thiruvananthapuram with my parents and my dog Yoshi, who is part of my diet plan as he eats half of what’s on my plate. I’ve relished Kosseri mangoes from my garden, which I missed every summer. As months passed from March to May I realised the peaks and plateaus of the COVID-19 cases were intrinsically tied to the emotional ups and downs at home. Then came a glimmer of hope, the VBM, but again scheduled to fly out of Delhi and the domestic flights were still grounded. A ticket dated May 27 from Delhi to Frankfurt was priced at Rs 90,000. I asked an Air India customer service agent if the ‘return fare rate’ meant that the middle seat was vacant and if there was any option to ferry residents of Kerala or Karnataka to Delhi to get on this flight. I heard a “no” and “no idea ma’am” response to the questions.

Shortly, domestic air travel opened and I decided to cancel my earlier tickets with Kuwait Airways and Lufthansa to get on the VBM flight out of any airport in India. Oddly, while the VBM flights bring lakhs of passengers to Kerala, they choose to fly out of India only from Mumbai or Delhi. The Phase 3 evacuation schedule of the VBM is already out and there are flights planned to Europe and Asia and America; however these flights cannot be booked as it shows it being unavailable on the website.

The challenging situation was further explained, by Salin Mankuzhy, PRO, Non-Resident Kerala Affairs. He said the Kerala government can take an initiative and suggest people for the VBM flights with the Centre only if respective countries request for their travel - case in point medical professionals. “Around 537 nurses were sent to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because their governments requested that they find a place on the VBM flights,” said Salin and suggested that I send him a formal complaint about Air India’s non-transparent ticketing. He would then forward my email to the Central government.

The Air India website clearly states that you can book tickets on the VBM flights on select dates but these tickets are showing as unavailable on the site. Air India staffers at LMS compound office are flummoxed as to why these tickets are not bookable on their system. One staffer said this is how it has been for the past week. “There was a customer who sat in our office for hours on June 1 and we were able to get him a ticket to Stockholm when the ticketing window opened. It was available for less than half hour. I don’t understand how these flights were already showing full when we booked his ticket. These tickets should be available for everyone, equally. Our office has mailed the headquarters seeking an explanation but we haven’t received an acknowledgement,” the airline staff said.

So there it is, the thing I spoke about earlier, it looks like the state government, the Centre and even my chosen country of residence, Germany, seems to have washed their hands off me. Meanwhile I constantly refresh the Air India website (open on my phone) hoping that the VBM ticketing will become accessible to common travellers and try not to worry too much about pending work, fading flowers of spring, my husband or the state of the kitchen as he learns to cook new dishes in Munich.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

Sangeetha Nair is a journalist and has worked with the The Statesman Kolkata, DNA and TV Today network.