Indian students who are Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) have bemoaned their plight after hundreds were stranded in various parts of the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic and were then refused access on repatriation flights organized by the Indian government.
While many OCI holders are settled outside of India, many only know India – some are the children of Indian-origin parents who hold citizenship of another country while others were born in another country but have grown up in India.
The plight of OCI students – who have moved overseas for higher education after spending their entire lives in India – is particularly stark.
Most of them are stranded in the United States and the UK. Many have no friends or relatives in the countries where they study after schools and universities shuttered.
With economic activity virtually non-existent many students have lost the jobs that they depended on to support themselves.
One student told the UKAsian: “We are residents of India, all our families are in India, and although we may have been born abroad India is the only home we have ever known. It is the first time away from home for many of us and our families are understandably very worried and anxious – in this uncertain situation which is becoming increasingly difficult to cope with, we are stranded abroad and cut off from our entire emotional and mental support system. Indeed, there is absolutely no difference between our plight and the struggles of students who are Indian nationals – India is home for all of us”.
The Indian government suspended travel for holders of the OCI – a multi-purpose, multiple-entry lifelong visa similar to a US Green Card or the Residency Permit in the UK – on 22 March.
Repatriation of Indians began in earnest in in early May but is currently confined to those who hold Indian passports.
Adding to the anxiety has been the variance in Indian government policy when it comes to those Indians scattered around the world.
“One of the main pieces of advice throughout from the government has been to get in touch with Indian missions abroad, however there was no consistent policy – for instance, while consulates in the US granted emergency visas for travel back to India before March 22nd, the high commission in London was completely unresponsive”, the student said. Among those stranded overseas is Bianta (the last name has been withheld for anonymity), a 20-year-old third year undergraduate at Bangor University in Wales, who hails from Bangalore.
“My classes have been suspended for almost two months now. I was born and brought up in India. I have no family in the UK, I’m completely alone here without any support. I must return home at the soonest as my father is alone in India. My mother passed away two years ago due to cancer and since then it has been just me and my dad. I am his only child and I miss him very much, along with the rest of family. Bangalore is the only home I have ever known and I cannot describe the mental anguish that I have been in since March, when OCI holders were first banned.
With commercial flights tentatively expected to resume sometime later this summer, he is anguished deeply anguished at what he will do. He says it has been traumatic for him.
“My mental health is deteriorating day by day and now they are saying OCIs will have to wait for commercial flights? Which might only be in July? I cannot wait that long. It has already been 2 months since I’ve been trying to get home. I watched all of my university friends leave to go home to their families, now all the Indians waiting for evacuation flights are getting to go home, and once again I have been left behind”, Bianta said.
Adding to the emotional drain is the financial strain.
“Financially the UK is too expensive. In the coming weeks my rental agreement will expire, after which I will have no where to go. I cannot continue funding myself here in the UK as I only planned to be here till May marking the end of my course. Please help us get home. The colour of my passport does not define where my home is.”
Another student, Prabhav, is stranded in New Jersey, across the river from the epicentre of the pandemic in the United States.
“I think there was definitely a feeling of anxiety among the students as we saw countries going to lockdown but for the longest time, we thought that it would be a major problem in New York”.
Prabhav says he’s one of the more fortunate ones.
“As of now, I am pretty lucky to have a comfortable living situation, even though I am staying with distant relatives. One of my friends who goes to the same university was not as lucky. He packed his bags and flew out the day he heard about the travel restrictions for OCIs – well before the university announced that they were going online for the semester. “Although I’m lucky to have food and shelter – which a lot of people are not fortunate to have right now – it’s definitely very stressful in its own way. I am not in a situation where I can be at home to help my parents when they need things, I don’t really have anyone to talk to when I am going through stressful situations. While it isn’t unbearable both the uncertainty of when you’ll see your loved ones and whether you will is something that lingers.
Another student – who wanted to remain anonymous – has called Bangalore home since the age of 1 and is pursuing studies at the University of the Arts in London. She told The UKAsian that she didn’t even have enough time to pack her bags after the lockdown was announced to find a flight home.
“I did not even get a chance to pack my bags and go back to Bangalore, the city I grew up in since the age of 1, and where I live with my family. I don’t have any other home to go to. “It has been just a little more than 8 months since I left India to study in London. My university stopped all physical classes now, and I (have) had to vacate my hostel. My student visa will end soon. I want to go back home to Bangalore.
She says she feels “abandoned”.
“All my life, I was told that I am just like any other Indian, but now, I feel abandoned. I am not allowed to go home and be with my family. I hope the Government pays attention to the plight of hundreds of students like me who consider India their home, and allow us to travel back at the earliest.”
Another student, Tridib Bhattacharya, 18, who is pursuing his studies at the School of Oriental and African Studied in London is now stranded in the USA after traveling there on holiday.
“I have lived in India since I was a young child. I took the opportunity to pursue my undergraduate studies abroad as I had been awarded a scholarship by my university, I would otherwise be studying in India like many of my friends are”, Bhattacharya said.
He added that he, like countless others around the world were caught completely unawares when the lockdown was announced.
“By the time it became clear how serious the situation was and my university closed in March, OCI holders had already been suspended from entering India – with a mere 24 hours notice. My efforts to obtain an emergency visa for travel from the Indian High Commission in London proved futile, as the High Commission was completely unresponsive. I thus had no way of entering India and returning home before the imposition of the national lockdown on March 22nd.
More alarmingly, when he began displaying Covid-19-like symptoms, his options were near nil.
“For a period of time in March, I was quite sick with feverish symptoms, I could not access any COVID-19 testing facilities, and that was a particularly distressing and difficult time to navigate through alone away from my family and support system.
“Our plight is no different from the struggles being faced by Indian students who hold Indian passports – India is home for all us. Yes, air travel at this point of time may be a risk but we are of course take all precautionary measures and undergo the mandatory quarantine period upon arrival in India.”
Dhruva Jaishankar, an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, is also stranded in the US. He says that while he appreciates the efforts India have made to keep Covid-19 in check, he despairs that OCI’s have been forgotten.
“I understand that measures need to be taken to prevent the entry of Covid-19 into India and applaud the fact that numbers have been so low in such a densely populated country”, Jaishankar says..
“When India closed her borders on March 12th, I was left in an emptying University and my only recourse was to come to the US and stay with extended family. I have been in the US for the last 2 months. Over the past couple of weeks, repatriation flights have started to be arranged for citizens of India. However, nothing has been said about repatriating OCIs whose primary residence is India. I am an OCI holder. My primary residence for the last 9 years has been with my parents in India. It is worrying that we still have not received any communication from the government to bring us back home”.
For its part, the Indian government – unlike, for instance with the UK government – has struggled to organize the repatriation of Indian citizens.
Flights only began in early May and seats have been – unsurprisingly – extremely limited and even more difficult to come by.
On 17 May, the Indian government announced that lockdown measures to contain the spread of Covid 19 may continue up to the end of the month, which means that international commercial flights may not recommence until well into June or July.