A prominent social activist here has requested the Indian authorities to initiate measures such as granting emergency visas on departure to help Indian-origin families travel to their homeland for health or other emergencies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
India's aviation safety regulator DGCA has extended the suspension of scheduled international commercial passenger flights till December 31. The restrictions, however, will not apply on international all-cargo operations and flights specifically approved by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
In the absence of regular flight service on overseas routes, special international flights are being operated under the Vande Bharat Mission since May and under bilateral "air bubble" arrangements with selected countries since July. Jaipur Foot USA Chairman Prem Bhandari said he has written to the Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, as well as the Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola and Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla outlining some of the hardships faced by Indian-origin families in travelling to India for emergency reasons and suggesting measures that can be taken to ensure smoother travel for these families.
Bhandari said in the letter that there should be more clarity in information that educates travellers on visa eligibility and required travel modalities. In the letter, he suggested that all airlines flying into India under the air-bubble arrangement should proactively verify that travellers with foreign passports have eligible visas at the time they book their tickets.
Key airlines in the air-bubble programme and relevant government departments should advertise eligible and ineligible visas for travel on their websites and on social media platforms, he said. Bhandari voiced appreciation for the efforts made by the Indian government to facilitate smooth travel for many stranded travellers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The progress made since May 2020 in gradually restoring travel, offering multiple options and keeping safety upmost is truly commendable. These tireless efforts have resolved many travel grievances by NRIs and their immediate family members in a very difficult time," he said. In the letter, he cited a few instances where Indian-origin families were facing difficulties in travelling to India, including cases where families were not allowed to board as some members of the family, mostly minor children, had unexpired multi-entry visas and tourist visas.
Noting that the continued suspension of tourist visas is creating difficulty, Bhandari said during the difficult times presented by the pandemic, the only reason for Indian-origin families to travel to their homeland is for emergencies such as death, funeral in family, work-visa related matters and not for tourism. "Corona-related deaths of relatives in India has become a compulsive cause for an otherwise avoidable travel endeavour for them to reach India at the earliest possible," he said.
Bhandari suggested that holders of Indian passport/PIO/OCI card be allowed to travel with their US-born minor children under the age of 14 with any unexpired visa obtained anytime without applying emergency visa at consulates. He added that in case it is difficult to carry out these measures, authorities may consider either granting Emergency Visa on Departure (E-VoD) or restoring immediate e-Visa process for approval online.
In October this year, the Indian government had decided to restore with immediate effect the validity of all existing visas, except electronic, tourist and medical category visas, almost eight months after their suspension following the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent imposition of a nationwide lockdown. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had also granted permission to all Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) and Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card holders and all other foreign nationals to visit India for any purpose, except for tourism.
When the COVID-19 virus hit India, the government had taken a series of steps to curtail the inward and outward movement of international passengers since February, 2020.