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Kiwis stranded in southern India feel ‘left out’ of repatriation flights

Priyanka Madanala is worried she’s going to run out of medicine while stranded in India with her three-year-old daughter.

Priyanka Madanala. Source: Supplied

Ms Madanala, a permanent resident holder living in Taranaki, has lupus and takes hydroxychloroquine. Since her flight back from a January holiday was cancelled at the end of April, and New Zealand’s borders shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she’s been stuck in Hyderabad in southern India.

“I need help from the Government or anyone to get my tablets, or I need to go back to New Zealand,” she told 1 NEWS.

“Because we use [hydroxychloroquine] for Covid-19 treatment, the medication is becoming completely not available in India.

“[Covid-19] is becoming really serious in India … it is really dangerous for me and my kid, so I need to go back to my home.”

Ms Madanala said she bought a three-month supply for her trip. Now she's relying on medicines sent by her husband back in New Zealand.

However, authorities have restricted importing the medicines to one-month supplies at a time, and each package comes with a long-winded approval process with Indian customs.

“After 20 days, I cleared customs and then my tablets arrived. The tablets are in capsules and almost all have melted because of the summer.

“The second month of medicine has to be couriered again, and the process will begin again with customs and everything. So, it is really difficult for me.”

Ms Madanala is one of the hundreds of Kiwis still stranded in southern India amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, some are calling on the New Zealand Government to fly them home from the region.

It comes as Air India opened bookings last week for a flight from New Delhi, in northern India, to Auckland on June 4 as part of the Indian Government’s charter flights to repatriate its citizens from New Zealand. 

Deepu Sudha is stranded in Kerala, a state in southern India, with pregnant wife Jisha Sheela.  

Deepu Sudha with his wife Jisha. Source: Supplied

“I’ve lost my hope. My wife is crying at me asking why there’s no flight. I just give her confidence to ‘please be patient. We will get a flight. We are New Zealanders’,” Mr Sudha said.

“Our doctor said she needs more rest and no stress at this stage.”

The pair are permanent residents living in Christchurch and visited India for a holiday in mid-February. Both were meant to return in March before New Zealand closed its borders, but their tickets were cancelled.

India then entered a nationwide lockdown on March 25.

While three repatriation flights have been organised to New Zealand, they had departed from Delhi and Mumbai in the northern parts of India while lockdown restrictions in the country halted domestic flights. 

Kerala is about 2600km from Delhi and 1200km from Mumbai. Both trips would have taken multiple days by train or bus.

But even as domestic flights in India re-started on Monday, Mr Sudha said “there’s no guarantee" for domestic flights.

"So how will we reach north?” 

He said some domestic flights were also being cancelled, adding to his uncertainty.

Among those also calling for flights from southern India is Rojo Idiculla. A permanent resident living in Thames, he is stranded in Kerala with his wife and two kids. 

Rojo Idiculla with his wife Liji and two kids. Source: Supplied

Mr Idiculla said people are still wanting flights from the southern region as people were worried about contracting Covid-19 in northern India, where the virus was spreading more rapidly. 

“Travelling at this stage is difficult, especially with kids and infants,” he said.

“[There are] limited services of domestic flights. If we were booked for the June 4 flight, we need to travel like seven or eight days before the travel date.”

He also said he tried to book a ticket on previous repatriation flights to New Zealand, but earlier lockdown restrictions in India prevented him from travelling north.

Mr Idiculla estimates there are hundreds of other Kiwis in southern India who also missed out on flights.

“They feel they are left out,” he said.

“It is very disheartening to see some people commenting that people overseas should not be allowed as the NZ Government clearly gave them a deadline to return to NZ. 

“In India, the lockdown decision was made into action immediately and there was no way we could board a flight within that timeframe.

“We came to India not for a holiday. We came because my father-in-law had a heart attack and he was very unwell. He has recovered, but he considers himself the reason that we are stuck.”

Mr Sudha and Mr Idiculla said even if they wanted to catch the June 4 flight, by the time they received confirmation on Thursday that Immigration New Zealand deemed they were eligible to enter the country, bookings had run out. 

Bookings for the flight opened on May 23. Mr Sudha said he called MFAT’s SafeTravel soon after, who said at the time Air India hadn’t confirmed yet whether seats for Kiwis had been approved by the Indian Government. 

Mr Sudha said he didn’t want to book flights in case he and his wife weren't eligible, because each seat cost thousands of dollars. 

Meanwhile, Mr Idiculla said: "[In a] SafeTravel email, it clearly mentioned not to book tickets prior to obtaining eligibility and, therefore, several people like me didn't book." Mr Sudha said he received an email which said the same.

Air India had since advised MFAT that tickets booked on May 23 would be honoured if the person was eligible to travel to New Zealand.

An MFAT spokesperson told 1 NEWS “given the limited capacity, not all of those eligible to enter New Zealand will be able to get on the flight”.

The spokesperson said yesterday the June 4 flight from Delhi was “subject to Air India obtaining regulatory approvals”.

“We expect further flights may become available later in June,” the spokesperson said.

In response to queries regarding bookings for the June 4 flight, the spokesperson pointed to MFAT’s website.

In regards to the Air India flight, its website said: “Only those who are eligible to enter New Zealand, as determined through the eligibility survey, will be able to make bookings on any flights”.

It said: “The New Zealand Government has been offered the remaining unsold seats for New Zealand citizens and their immediate family who completed the eligibility survey, and further details will be provided to this group on how the booking process will operate.”

It also said Air India handled its own bookings for the Indian Government-chartered flight and had been the ones who asked for the eligibility surveys from Kiwis in India. 

“On Saturday 23 May, Air India opened bookings for the flight from Delhi to Auckland on 4 June on their website for a short period. However, the listing has now been removed and the flight is showing as ‘unavailable’ on Air India’s booking platforms.  

“Any further ticket sales for the 4 June flight or any subsequent flights will be organised by Air India.”

The spokesperson also said they were “working actively” with the Indian government to help Kiwis in India get home on Air India flights, including those in southern India.

“We will continue to work on options for New Zealand citizens and their immediate family members in South India and will provide updates via SafeTravel.

“Those located in southern India may also wish to consider moving to another location in India in order to better access any outbound flights, now that some domestic flights are operating.”

Since April, more than 700 Kiwis and their families returned home from India on the three Government-chartered flights, the spokesperson said.