Cochin International Airport in Kerala passengers
Passengers leave Cochin International Airport in Kerala after arriving on an Air India Express special flight from Dubai on Friday. Image Credit: ANI

Thiruvananthapuram: More than half a million expatriate Keralites had registered with the Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs (NoRKA) department when the Kerala government decided to facilitate their return to the home state. However, many of those who have returned found their homecoming laced with unpleasant experiences.

Apart from steep airfares, the returning expatriates had to grapple with confusion over registration to be able to travel, followed by chaos at the airport upon landing and doubts over quarantine norms.

NoRKA or embassy?

When the Kerala government announced its intention to bring back expatriates, non-resident Keralites rushed to register with NoRKA, but were later told that they had to register with the Indian Embassy in their respective countries of residence.

This was because it was India’s federal government that was facilitating the flights to India from different countries. The federal government branded these flights ‘Vande Bharat Mission’, giving the impression that it was sponsoring the expatriates’ return. But in reality, expatriates had to pay for their tickets, which were priced way above regular fares. An Abu Dhabi-Kochi one-way ticket cost as much as Dh750.

Ignoring social distancing

Passengers who were asked to maintain strict social distancing at the airport later found out, much to their dismay, that it was being totally ignored once they entered the aircraft, where they had to sit too close to one another.

One Keralite who returned from the UAE on one of the initial repatriation flights last month, told Gulf News that he was shocked to see that after hours of queuing up and maintaining social distancing at the airport, passengers were seated next to each other once inside the aircraft for the flight to Kerala.

Getting a seat on these repatriation flights as well as the fare proved to be quite challenging. In the initial phase, only pregnant women and those with medical conditions were given preference.

Confusion upon landing

Expatriates appeared to be most unhappy about what happened after they landed at various airports in Kerala. A majority of them had hoped that they would be able to drive home and put themselves in home quarantine, but the authorities insisted that they would need to go to an institutional quarantine centre.

“My wife and I landed in Kochi from Abu Dhabi, thinking that we could be in safe quarantine at our farmhouse in Palakkad. But we were told that we would have to take a government bus to Palakkad and be housed at a government quarantine centre that turned out to be a shabby men’s hostel of a dental college,” a 67-year-old businessman living in the UAE for 30 years told Gulf News.

After much protests over the condition of the quarantine centre, the couple was finally allowed to move to a hotel at their own expense, where they spent a fortnight in quarantine.

Continuing complaints

This week, another man from the UAE posted a video on social media, showing how he and the others who had landed with him at Kochi airport were kept waiting in a government bus at Pala in the middle of the night, while the authorities tried to figure out where to quarantine them.

Speaking to Gulf News, the deputy tehsildar at Pala, Cyril P Joseph, said the confusion arose only because the man who shot the video had booked a hotel room in Kottayam for his quarantine. He was later taken to Kottayam by the same bus.

However, the official said he was in no position to answer how a filmstar like Prithviraj could fly into Kerala and drive straight to a hotel for quarantine, even as the other expatriates were being herded into buses.

NRI stigma

For nearly half a century now, the home visits of non-resident Indians (NRIs) in Kerala, particularly those from the Gulf, have been joyous family events. But following the coronavirus outbreak, expatriates feel there seems to be some stigma attached to their status. “On television, the chief minister and others are always talking about coronavirus and expatriates. It is as if we are the ones who are responsible for it,” a businessman from the UAE, who did not want to be identified, told Gulf News.

What to expect during and after repatriation flights
■ Do expect a few hours of waiting at the departing airport.
■ Don’t expect social distancing once inside the aircraft.
■ Expect only light refreshments during the flight.
■ Be prepared to contend with some confusion upon landing over whether the quarantine period is for a fortnight or a week.
■ Do not ask family members to come to the airport to receive you.
■ Those used to good living abroad should not expect community kitchens in Kerala to be serving food to their taste.