An estimated 15,000 Canadians are stranded in various parts of India amid a three-week nationwide lockdown. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day closure on March 24 in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus. A related ban on international flights took effect on March 22 and will remain in place until at least April 14.
The Canadian government has announced several flights to repatriate citizens and some permanent residents, scheduled to leave from Mumbai and New Delhi on April 4, 5, 6 and 7.
The estimated cost per ticket is approximately $2,900 – significantly higher than a one-way ticket on a regular commercial flight. Stranded Canadians have taken to social media to express their frustration about the cost, pointing out that most people don’t qualify for Ottawa’s emergency loan program. Many are also wondering how they’re supposed to make their way to Mumbai or New Delhi amid the shutdown.
“Canada is taking extraordinary measures to bring the largest number of Canadians home as quickly as possible,” Global Affairs said in an e-mail to journalists Tuesday night. “Unfortunately, it will not be possible to ensure the return of all Canadians who wish to come home.”
Here are a few of the Canadians and permanent residents trapped in India, hoping for more help from Ottawa.
Manasi and Bharat Datta
Finance manager and regional sales manager (Calgary)
Stranded separately in Thane and Pune, both in Maharashtra
The Dattas are stranded in two different cities in Maharashtra, a state in western India. Manasi, 38, and her two children, three-year-old Apurv and eight-month-old Jiya, are staying at her parents’ home in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai. Her husband, Bharat, 37, and his 68-year-old mother, Rashmi, are stuck at the family home in Pune, 150 kilometres to the southeast.
The family travelled to India earlier this year to spend time with relatives during Manasi Datta’s maternity leave. They planned to stay until April, but when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Canadians to return home, the Dattas tried to rebook their tickets. They weren’t able to get a flight back to Canada before the ban took effect.
“The lockdown is tough to deal with, with little kids,” Ms. Datta says. “My mother-in-law has a lung condition, and we think her best care, if anything were to happen, would be in Canada. Plus, my baby’s immune system is still developing. We are worried. What if things get worse here in terms of infections?”
Though the family was given details about repatriation flights from Mumbai, each ticket only covers their travel to Toronto. Add in the cost of a domestic flight to Calgary, and the Dattas estimate they’ll need $15,000 to get home.
“It’s extortion, and it makes us very upset," Ms. Datta says. "Other countries have repatriated their citizens for free, and we are having to pay four times the price we normally would. And the emergency loans are only available to people if they have maxed out cards, begged all their family and friends, and have no options at all. This really sucks.”
Melba and Philip Alphonso
Retirees (Brampton, Ont.)
Stranded in Aldona, Goa
The Alphonsos – Melba is 69, Philip is 73 – spend winters at their ancestral home in Goa, in western India. (They’re the parents of The Globe and Mail’s education reporter Caroline Alphonso.) They’re trying to get to Mumbai, 555 kilometres to the north, on one of the buses being arranged by Canadian consular officials. There, they’ll stay at a hotel near the airport until they can board one of the repatriation flights back home.
Until then, they face a dire situation in Aldona, where they’re having trouble accessing basic food items such as milk and bread. “We are aware that the situation has deteriorated for foreign nationals in Goa, some who are facing harassment, difficulty obtaining essential supplies and eviction from their shelter,” an e-mail from Canadian officials said.
Not only are food supplies scarce, but there are no fixed hours at local grocery stores. Since they don’t have access to a car, the Alphonsos must walk outside in the heat, which easily surpasses 35 degrees. It’s been particularly strenuous for Mr. Alphonso, who is diabetic and has a heart condition. When they do manage to find food, they’re sharing it with their neighbours.
“Essential food items are not easily available. It is really difficult,” says Mr. Alphonso, who credits his wife for helping him cope.
“I am trying to keep him calm,” his wife adds. “There is no point in getting upset – it’s not in our hands.”
Supply chain manager (Toronto)
Stranded in Kolkata
Priyadarshi Bhattacharya returned to his native India in mid-March under tragic circumstances: to spend time with his ailing father. On the day he died, Mr. Modi announced plans for a weeklong ban on international flights. Days later, the countrywide lockdown took effect. Mr. Bhattacharya was stuck.
A permanent resident of Canada, the 35-year-old remains at his parents’ home, but he’s worried about his pregnant wife, who is alone in Toronto. For now, his employer is allowing him to work remotely from Kolkata, but the situation is far from ideal – there’s a 9.5-hour time difference, and he’s working on Toronto time.
“I’m obviously concerned about my wife and about my job,” Mr. Bhattacharya says. “It’s a tough time to look for another job.”
To make matters worse, the federal government’s repatriation flights aren’t a realistic option, he says. New Delhi is 1,500 kilometres to the northwest. Mumbai is even farther away – 2,160 km west. Getting to either city is a logistical nightmare: There are no domestic flights, trains or buses, and travelling by car won’t work either because of road closings. In order to pass through police checkpoints, travellers require special documents. As of Wednesday morning, no special transportation had been arranged for Canadians trapped in the eastern or southern parts of India, including Bangalore and Chennai.
Yoga instructor (Montreal)
Stranded in McLeodganj, on the edge of the Himalayas
Trish Berke fell in love with India years ago. “When I had a baby, it didn’t interrupt my travel,” she says. She and her three-year-old son, Taylor, arrived in Goa on Feb. 11, the same day the Canadian government flew home its final load of evacuees from Wuhan. “Goa was a paradise,” she says. “People knew what was going on with coronavirus, but we didn’t really talk about it.”
A month later, they flew to Dharamsala, 500 km north of Delhi, and spent five days at a Buddhist nunnery. But as Himachal Pradesh province began to shut down, they were forced to leave. Ms. Berke called a local friend who owns a taxi and made a break for McLeodganj, seat of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. A local man died of COVID-19 there after returning from the United States, and Airbnbs and guesthouses were refusing to take in Westerners for fear of either being infected or running afoul of authorities, who are tracking foreigners’ movements. The first place they found was crowded, with a kitchen shared by guests and staff alike. The next day, on March 21 – a day before the province went into lockdown – Ms. Berke found a room at another guesthouse with a private kitchen. “One day, everything was open and life was normal,” says Ms. Berke, who has Crohn’s disease. “And then nothing. It’s dead. I’ve never slept so well – not even the dogs are barking.”
The town’s 11,000-odd residents are allowed out between 8 and 11 a.m. to shop – Ms. Berke has stocked up on lentils, rice, oats and peanut butter. Other than that, they’re trapped indoors. “Taylor is wonderful to be with, so that helps,” she says. But she’s keen to return to Montreal (which she was scheduled to do in May), where she recently launched a business co-ordinating donations for families in need. Two seats on a government flight home – if she can get them – will cost just shy of $6,000. As for how she’ll get to Delhi – a 10-hour trip from McLeodganj at the best of times – she has no idea. “The government says it will send us a letter to show to police, though they can’t guarantee that will get us through,” she says. She has heard stories of cars being stopped and passengers beaten. Mistrust of foreigners is running high.
“I know I made the choice to stay, but I felt the risk was there no matter what I did,” she says. “I thought I was safe in the mountains. Now I just want to get out of here.”
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