I am one of the NRIs that the Narendra Modi government claims to have ‘rescued’ heroically from abroad through its much-celebrated Vande Bharat Mission. However, my experience with this ‘rescue’ mission has been one of the most stressful times of my life. It was an emotionally and financially draining experience. Finally, I had to sue the Modi government and Air India to get a seat on a Vande Bharat flight back home to Kerala. Here is my story.
I have been living and working in Europe since 2015, and in Munich since 2018. Early 2020, I got a job offer from an IT firm in Bangalore and I was all set to relocate to India. I put in my papers with my German employer and booked my tickets in March to leave Germany on 5 June. And then, both the German and Indian governments announced lockdowns due to the coronavirus crisis.
My German visa, called the EU Blue Card, is connected to my employer. So when the employment contract is terminated, the visa, too, gets terminated. However, considering the travel ban to India, the German government had made provisions for stranded foreigners to extend their stay legally in Germany without hassle. Then the trouble started.
A social media government
One week before the scheduled flight to Thiruvananthapuram, Qatar Airways wrote to me saying that the flight had been cancelled and that I could reschedule (get a voucher) for a future flight or apply for a full refund. I opted for the latter and waited. That same week, the Modi government announced three flights to Delhi from Frankfurt under the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back stranded Indians. Our Digital India-endorsing government makes announcements only on Twitter and Facebook. The government does not update embassy websites or the websites of the civil aviation or external affairs ministries. All official announcements are made via Twitter. So if you, like me, don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, then you will miss out on these official government announcements. I got the link to the Google form only when it was circulated on a WhatsApp group.
For these first set of three flights from Frankfurt, the Embassy of India in Berlin (being the nodal authority for the Vande Bharat Mission) announced on social media that stranded Indians who wished to return had to register themselves via a Google form. This form asked for personal identification details and reason for travel to India. The procedure was that the Embassy would go through the applications and shortlist deserving passengers who would get priority to travel back. Naturally, pregnant women, senior citizens, students, or those stranded with expired visas would get first preference.
I waited after registering and my name didn’t make it to the list for the first three flights. The Berlin Embassy announced, again via social media, that stranded Indians needn’t panic because there will be other flights to more Indian cities in the coming days. In the next few days, Air India put up a list on its social media handles for Vande Bharat Phase 3 flights, which included a 19 June flight from Frankfurt to Thiruvananthapuram.
The Embassy instructed stranded Indians via text and video posts to directly book tickets on these flights through the Air India website on 10 June, when the airlines would open their bookings.
So, on 10 June, I tried to book a ticket on this flight. Unfortunately, the airline website showed that there were no flights on that date — even though all the lists put up on the official Indian government and Air India handles show this flight. Then, through a WhatsApp group of stranded Malayalis, I came to know that there are three other flights to Kochi from Frankfurt — on 16, 23 and 28 June. By the time I got this information, the flight to Kochi on 16 June was booked. But I managed to secure a ticket for the flight on 23 June for €650.
An endless wait
Despite all the miscommunication and misinformation, I was relieved when I finally got a confirmed ticket in my inbox. I spent the next few days cancelling my contracts (apartment, phone, internet, insurances, etc.) in Germany. I was scheduled to join my new job virtually on 29 June. Everything seemed to be going well.
Come 14 June and a new list was floating around these WhatsApp groups in which only the 16 and 19 June flights to Kerala were listed. From then on, the real nightmare began. On 15 June, this list was published on Air India’s official handles and on the external affairs ministry website. Most flights scheduled for or after the 19th were missing from it.
When I tried to retrieve the booking through the Air India website, it showed an error. Following all the rules and instructions given by the Berlin Embassy and Air India, I called and emailed the airline’s customer care portal.
After multiple calls (which included 20-30 minutes of being on hold and hanged on), I finally got through to an agent. For the last 15 days of June, I called Air India every single day to get information on the ticket and flight status. However, no clear information was given, and each time a different reason or solution was given, without any information about the flights. There was never an email or official communication from the Indian Embassy or Air India about whether the flights were, in fact, cancelled and, if so, why.
The final information that I got from the Air India agent was to wait until new flights were announced. Unlike other airline websites, Air India didn’t allow us to see our booking online. So, even if there are new flights listed, one has to keep checking the Air India website, find a flight with seats available, then call customer care, wait for an hour to get through and be informed that there are no more seats.
Apart from me, there were also older people and students who were due to fly on these flights that got cancelled without notice. I spoke to a student, who lived in Dresden, and couldn’t even afford to pay for his daily meals. He told me that he was calling Air India and writing to the Embassy almost every day seeking help. He said that he was waking up late every day so that he could delay his hunger a bit more and eat less food every day. Air India executives continued to read from different scripts and provided no information whatsoever.
Meanwhile, the joining date for my new job got postponed due to tax and legal implications. By 30 June, I had to vacate my flat, had no income, my phone and internet contract was cancelled and I had to take refuge at a friend’s place with no news of when I would be able to return to India. There was no information on the next flight or if the money I paid would be refunded. I wrote to everyone possible: the Berlin embassy, the Chief Minister of Kerala, and Air India. I even opened a Twitter account to inform the authorities through tweets, but to no avail.
Filing a case
On 1 July, Air India again announced a flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore via Delhi. And the same thing followed. I checked online and called the customer care executive. After 20-25 minutes of waiting, I got through to an agent who said that there were no seats available. I tried 3-4 times that day and every agent gave me a different answer. Some said that the seats were sold out while others said the booking hadn’t even started.
After this continuous stress and harassment, I decided to go ahead and file a case against the authorities and Air India. My father, C.A Majeed, filed a writ petition, on my behalf, against the Union of India, Air India, State of Kerala, Indian Ambassador to Germany and Norka Roots in the High Court of Kerala (WP(C) 13506/2020) on 3 July. The case was heard on 6 July, during which the representative of the Modi government said that they were not aware of the case and hadn’t received the files. The next hearing was moved to 9 July. On the evening of 8 July, my lawyer was asked to provide my details (name, passport number, e-ticket number) and the next day, just before the hearing in the court, I was emailed a ticket confirming a seat for me on flight AI120 from Frankfurt to Bangalore scheduled for 12 July.
I managed to get a ticket and come home, but the harassment and stress that I went through as a stranded person in a different country, even after having paid the full amount for my flight, was unpardonable. Air India or the Indian Embassy showed little or no sensitivity in at least informing us of the cancellations on time or providing us with a solution. Despite following every rule by the book, the Embassy blamed Air India for the chaos, and Air India kept saying that the Embassy had ticket quotas that it allots to passengers it deems fit to travel.
When I saw all the advertisement and praise for the Vande Bharat Mission online, I felt everyone should know the callousness with which NRIs are being actually treated.
I had paid €650 for a ticket from Frankfurt to Kochi, and I was given a ticket from Frankfurt to Bangalore, worth €470. I had to book tickets from Bangalore to Thiruvananthapuram on my own and pay almost Rs 15,000 for my ticket and extra baggage. My joining date got postponed by a month, which meant I missed out on one month’s salary. And this is just my story. I got a place to stay and had some savings with me. There are so many other Indians, not just in Germany, but in different parts of the world, who may not be able to afford this ‘rescue’ journey. I wouldn’t wish this for anyone else.
It is high time that Air India gets called out for its irresponsible and insensitive treatment of passengers and milking such an opportunity to loot people in distress. And it’s high time that the Modi government takes notice and addresses the harsh reality rather than spending money and time on rosy advertisements.
The author is a former journalist and editor who now works as a content designer in the tech industry. Views are personal.
Read Air India’s response to this article, which was tweeted on 22 July:
The writer, Monty Majeed, responded to it by saying the airlines had got the date wrong and that she hadn’t received any information/communication about a refund for her flight ticket as on 23 July.
ThePrint reached out to Air India spokesperson Sameek Bhattacharya who said, “We have already made our statement in our Twitter handle. We wouldn’t like to make any comment on it.”
The article has been updated.