For Americans stuck in India, it’s a difficult road home

For Americans stuck in India, it’s a difficult road home

The Indian government’s strict lockdown and ban on international travel has turned weeks-long visits into months-long stays.

By Allen Watkin - originally posted to Flickr as Air India A330, CC BY-SA 2.0
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In February, Usha Shivakumar traveled to Chennai, India for a week-long trip to make a sale on property she owned. Shivakumar, a 56-year-old resident of the Chicago suburbs, arrived in India on February 2, intending to return to the United States on February 9. But in the course of her visit, she caught pneumonia and required a long hospital stay. The timing couldn’t have been worse. “That’s when the lockdown happened,” Shivakumar said.

The lockdown, imposed by the Indian government on March 25 to curb the spread of COVID-19, was among the strictest in the world. It was also the world’s largest — all 1.3 billion people in the country were subject to, in the words of the prime minister, “a total ban on venturing out of your homes.” Domestic and international flights were grounded; inessential travel by rail or roadways was prohibited. Each time the lockdown neared its end, the government extended it in two-week increments. Left stranded in India were thousands of U.S. citizens and visa holders, many of whom have since spent months trying to get back home.

“Now we’re in June and there are no definite plans to open commercial international flights,” said Shivakumar. “So, I’m just stuck here.”

Over 1000 people share similar commiserations in a Facebook group called “Americans Stuck in India.” Another group is filled with over 7000 U.S. visa holders who traveled to India before the lockdown and are stuck in the country.

“I have booked and rebooked flights six times since March 20,” said Aswin Subanthore, a member of the “Americans Stuck in India” group and a green card holder, who traveled to India to conduct his father’s last rites. “It has a lot to do with the Indian government and Air India and it’s been utter chaos since day one.”

The U.S. government chartered repatriation flights for American citizens and green card holders in India in early April, but services were suspended in mid-May due to “declining demand.”

Those repatriation flights departed from Mumbai and New Delhi, leaving behind American residents in other cities who were unable to travel to Mumbai or Delhi due to bans on intra-state travel. According to a State Department official, as of June 9, the U.S. had arranged 25 flights to repatriate over 5800 US citizens and legal residents from India.

“There are no further U.S. government charter flights scheduled or planned to evacuate U.S. persons from India at this time. We urge U.S. persons wishing to return to the United States to strongly consider available commercial flight options,” said the official.

Subanthore and many of his fellow group members have been trying to book flights through Air India, the only commercial airline operating between India and the US, but to no avail. Air India flights are offered through the Indian government’s Vande Bharat mission, which repatriates both Indian nationals stranded abroad and legal residents of other countries stranded in India. These flights seem to sell out or oversell within minutes of ticket sales opening online.

“There’s been uncertainty month after month both from the government and from the airlines. I’ve lost close to $2500 in booking tickets from Air India after they cancelled my tickets,” added Subanthore.

The Indian SCENE spoke to U.S. citizens and green card holders stuck in India to hear about their experiences:

Usha Shivakumar, 56, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

I can’t verbally express to you how much I miss home. I was taking care of my daughter who is pregnant and my five dogs before I left the US for what I thought would be a short trip. Now we’re in June and there are no definite plans to open commercial international flights, so I’m just stuck here. I’m bordering on depression. I do some meditation and some exercises within my room and to keep myself occupied I read books. I download PDFs and read them. I also spend a lot of time on Facebook. I look forward to the 6 p.m. hour in India because that’s when the family wakes up. My husband calls me every day and talks to me for 15-20 minutes. I also talk to my son and my daughter just to see how she’s doing. I keep telling myself I’m better off than most people. People are dying, people are jobless. Not in my 56 years of life have I experienced something like this.

Aswin Subanthore 40, Washington D.C.

I rushed to India on March 15 because my dad had passed away. I took the next available flight from D.C. with my wife and rushed to Chennai. It’s been a tough journey trying to get back to the US. The external affairs ministry seems to be very confused and they don’t know what they’re doing. The U.S. government has extended offers to both U.S. citizens and green card holders to evacuate, but those flights did not leave from Chennai where I’m at. The ease of doing business in the US is a big thing I miss. The other thing is the ease with which you can contact the congressperson for grievances in the US, but, there’s no such conduit in India. Here, politicians are busy with photo ops. I work for a veteran-owned company and my wife has her own venture. Right now, we maintain US hours to work. The first thing I’d do after getting back is to get a goodnight’s sleep. Once I reach there, I won’t have to work on two different systems, just one system and that’s something I really look forward to.

Monica Kumar, 47, Lansdowne, Va.

I used to visit India every year to shop and buy materials for the Indian boutique I own back in the US. But this time I came down to take care of my father who has Parkinson’s and have been here since February 26. I live along with 9 other members of my family in Gaya, Bihar. When I landed there weren’t too many cases in the US, we’d only heard about Wuhan and European countries. I find the entire situation quite frustrating. This is my hometown. When I come here, I like to go out and meet my cousins and hangout with them. We go to Bodh Gaya every fifteen days. But this time as soon as I arrived things went under lockdown. It was so sudden. My ticket back to Delhi was on March 26 and the lockdown happened around that time. The situation in the US is worrying too. Initially they didn’t take it seriously and I’m mad that the situation got so bad. Thankfully it’s different now. Every day I try to call up my daughters and we try to talk in the mornings. That’s the first thing I try to do. My older daughter and husband are working from home. The younger one is in the 11th grade and it’s getting hard for her to cope. The emotional stress and the mental stress we have right now — it is tough on us. I haven’t panicked in this situation. I’ve kept myself calm and try to keep busy. Most of my time goes in doing household chores. I’m getting a lot of encouraging words from my family in India and here.

by Lakshmi Sivadas

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