“That was a big mistake,” he tells TNM. “Our flights got cancelled four times, and then India banned flights from Malaysia, where our transit was. Then India banned all international flights in March.”
Since then, Sumith has knocked on the doors of the Indian embassy in Beijing, gotten in touch with the Ministry of External Affairs as well as the Tamil Nadu government. None have provided any solution, and have passed the buck onto the other.
“I am on the grace period of my visa now, and we need to exit the country before June 19. I don’t know how that’s going to happen,” Sumith says. And he is not the only one. According to him, there are over 100 Indians stranded in China right now.
“But since China is now considered a green zone and an evacuation of Indians from Wuhan has already happened, we think that the Indian government is no longer seeing us as a priority. We feel helpless and abandoned by our government,” he rues.
No income, high cost of living
Sumith says that many Indians left behind were contractual or temporary workers, who have no source of income now. “The cost of living is high here. For my family of four and a one-year-old infant, it is costing me a minimum of Rs 80,000 per month. Neither my wife nor I are working right now. We had an EMI for our flat in Chennai, which we paid off— but that also means that we had no savings. I have borrowed some money from the Indian community here that I hope to pay back once I am back home,” he says.
Varun*, a native from Trichy living in Beijing, has a similar story. A postdoctoral fellow, his work contract was completed on March 1. While he was earlier living on company accommodation, he now has to pay rent. He hasn’t been paid a salary for the last two months.
“I have borrowed some money from a professor of mine. The cost of keeping a roof over my head is equivalent to almost Rs 25,000, and that’s actually considered cheap here. I have also not been able to find a job – a company I applied to said that they were not taking foreigners at the moment. I can’t manage beyond another month or two like this,” he says.
Ashwini, a 25-year-old yoga instructor, lost her job a month ago when her employer refused to extend her work visa as business was down. “I am dependent on a cousin of mine who lives in another city in China to support me. But how many days will he also be able to help me?”
Another reason Ashwini, who is based in Jinchang city in Gansu province wants to come back to Mysuru, Karnataka is because her grandmother has not been keeping well. “She was in the hospital too. I am so frustrated and scared. I just want to return home,” she says.
No response from authorities
A series of emails shared by Sumith show that he wrote to the MEA in Delhi, the Indian embassy in Beijing as well as the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils.
“The Embassy said that they have no information about any special or evacuation flights from China to India. The Tamil Nadu government said that the Centre needs to give a go ahead on flights, and then they can push for our case. The MEA also said that they also need a go ahead from the government. Everyone is just passing the buck,” Sumith says.
Ashwini registered on Seva Sindhu, the portal to register for entry into Karnataka. “But I received no response from them. I checked frequently, but there was no update.”
Homesick and lonely in a foreign land
The Indians stranded in China also question why they are not allowed to be clubbed with other repatriation missions from neighbouring countries like Malaysia or Korea. “There are flights from China to Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea etc. However, since they all have cancelled transit visas, we need a go-ahead from the embassies and need to have a confirmed ticket of the evacuation flight to be able to go to the neighbouring countries. But that is also not happening,” Sumith says. This has left many Indians feeling even more helpless.
On a blog that these Indians stuck in China have launched, there are some firsthand accounts of the consequences of people being stranded without income and away from their families. One account from Harish*, a software engineer from Bengaluru who is stuck in Shanghai, highlights how he was about to go back to India to be with his newborn son, but now has not seen him for three months.
“I have been staying at my friend’s place ever since. I sleep on the couch; it has been two months since I went to work or saw a salary credited into my account. I have been living on whatever little savings I have and day by day my situation is getting worse. Few days back, the company that I was supposed to join in Bengaluru informed me that the position has been closed. My work permit is cancelled so I cannot work here in Shanghai. My residence permit was also cancelled, and I was given a humanitarian visa valid till April 11 which has also expired now. The entry exit bureau informed that all visas that expired before 15 April were automatically given a grace period of 60 days,” he writes. “I had never imagined something like this would happen to me.”
For Varun and Ashwini, both of whom stay alone, the loneliness is beginning to take its toll. “I live on the 18th floor and I am now among the remaining two-three people here, and the only Indian. Not speaking the local language means I have no social life. Sometimes when I go to the store, I find that the shopkeepers and staff ignore foreigners, or sometimes, even refuse saying ‘this is not for you’. It is just getting very desperate and depressing for me,” Varun laments.
“I am not even concerned about mandatory institutional quarantine once I come back to India. Maybe it will be tough, but at least it is my country and my people. I would urge the Indian government to help bring us back to India, to our motherland,” Ashwini says.
As of now, under the Indian government’s Vande Bharat mission to bring Indians in other countries back, there are no flights scheduled from China till June 12, which is the last date given in the schedule so far. While an Air India flight did evacuate 324 Indians from Wuhan on February 1, the Indians stranded in China say that Indians in other parts of the country – like the northeast and northwest provinces were not considered at the time.