Why are people unhappy with Vande Bharat Mission?
In the past one and a half months, more than 150k people have flown to India from all parts of the world and the number is steadily increasing. After being stranded for more than two months, lots of Indians have reached home, courtesy of the Vande Bharat Mission. Being stuck in a foreign land can be distressing and there were desperation and urgency amongst Indians to come back. People are thankful for the opportunity provided by the Government of India via the Vande Bharat Mission.
However, you can sense that people are unhappy with the way they are being brought back to their homeland. Once you reach your destination, you are bound to forget all the hardships and difficulties you faced during your long and tough journey back home. But we need to understand what is troubling the travelers and why do they want international flights to be resumed ASAP.
- The VBM flights are departing from very few cities. Everyone has to reach the selected city on their own, sometimes via a 4-5 hours flight. This is really bothersome and problematic. You also have to pay for the extra baggage as domestic airlines have a limited baggage allowance. Travelers are also exposed twice to the lethal virus, as they have to go through an extra journey.
- Details about the whole process are not provided through legitimate sources. People are scouting for information on social media and latch to whatever inputs they get from the FB and WA groups. Every state has a different protocol and this augments the confusion. In this age of Digital Media, is it so difficult to circulate the right information?
- The Air India website hasn’t been updated for decades and booking a ticket there is a task in itself. There are lots of incongruity and hurdles. The website and App crash at the first instance of traffic. People browsing exactly at the same time see different availability and options. They kept getting ‘No Flights or ‘Sold Out’ messages even if there are seats available. You have to spend hours making a booking. There is no sync between the App and the Website. If you want to reschedule or cancel your flight, you have a task on hand. There are constraints on payment methods. You have to understand that people are stuck in a foreign land with limited sources.
- Flights are prohibitively expensive (more than double) and everyone can’t afford them, especially if they are traveling as a family. These flights are not end-to-end. One has to buy domestic flights, stay at an airport hotel, and pay for quarantine facilities. All this adds up to a tidy sum which can make a big hole in your pocket. People book the wrong tickets in panic/confusion or are double charged because of technical glitches. They have to pay heavy penalty charges – what if they are “evacuation flights”? No point in calling Air India, unless you have a day to spare. Most of the flights depart in the morning and so people coming from other cities have to stay overnight near the airport. Not a very welcoming prospect under the present conditions. The check-in entails standing in a mile-long queue. The elderly and pregnant women are given no preference or assistance.
- Despite the high prices, there is no physical distancing in flights and they are filled to capacity. The robe given to the middle seat passenger is just an eye wash.
- Flights are operating with minimalistic services and facilities. You have to travel with basic food, no blankets, and no inflight entertainment. There is no provision for tea/coffee. These are long flights and they can be very inconvenient. Flights are not cleaned for new passengers and you can see empty bottles and discarded food packets lying around. Can anything be more unhygienic and dangerous in COVID times?
- VBM flights have very limited destinations and most of the flights are landing in Delhi, especially from the USA and European countries. The city is already under a lot of pressure because of rapidly increasing coronavirus cases. The airport personnel is not able to handle the huge influx of travelers and it can be seen in their nonchalant and unhelpful demeanor. Many people have language issues and can not communicate with Hindi-speaking staff. The flight from the Middle East and Australia / New Zealand are landing majorly in South India, Why can’t the flights land in different parts of the country, making it easy for everyone concerned?
- The most harrowing part is when you disembark. It can take you about 7-8 hours to get out of the airport, especially if multiple flights are landing at the same time. Not an easy job for anyone after a long and exhausting flight. You can imagine the ordeal for the aged, pregnant, and families with small kids. You have to stand in long queues without any food/water, drag heavy bags, and argue endlessly with the staff. There are several rounds of medical screening which has no value or purpose. No consideration or empathy for anyone.
- The inconsistency of quarantine rules is really distressing for everyone. There are no clear rules and they keep changing making it impossible to plan anything. People have no idea where they will be quarantined – at the landing city or the final destination. They are not sure if they will be quarantined in a hotel or allowed to go home. Everything depends on the mood of the officers in charge. The ambiguity and unpredictability have resulted in many people canceling their VBM flights.
- After clearing all the formalities and paperwork at the first port of entry, people have to make their own domestic travel arrangements mostly. When domestic flights are so limited, it’s not easy finding a connecting flight. You have no idea ‘IF’ you will be allowed to take a flight and ‘WHEN’ will you be allowed to travel. People miss their booked flights because of the prolonged process at the airport. They are forced to stay at the airport for long hours, sometimes overnight. Passengers traveling onwards to other cities have to pay large amounts for their luggage. If you plan to travel by road, you have to go through the baffling process of arranging an e-pass and convincing the airport staff to let you go.
- The chaos and rush at Delhi airport can dissuade the most resilient traveler. The COVID Triage room is chaotic, cramped, and has no air-conditioning. The room is very small and the passengers are carrying all their luggage by the time they reach the Triage room. Social distancing goes for a toss. The mismanagement and confusion there will leave you flabbergasted. Spending a couple of hours in such a stuffed room can be really hazardous.
- From the airport to the hotel, you have to travel in dirty, rickety, non-AC public buses with long stopovers at each hotel. With the soaring temperatures and high humidity, this trip can really drain you. After paying so much money, can’t one expect better facilities? Arranging for better buses cannot be such a difficult job.
- COVID Triage RoomDespite the large number of flights deployed by VBM, there are lots of people still waiting for their turn. The numbers are increasing daily because of consistent layoffs and the closing of the colleges. The repatriation flights are not able to cope with the increasing demand, especially in Gulf countries. If there is a sudden emergency, the chances of you getting a reservation on the next flight are negligible.
- Recently Air India has resorted to lots of last-minute cancellations and rescheduling with mandatory long layovers in Delhi. More harassment for the stressed Indians stuck abroad.
- There are many restrictions on VBM flights even now. Lots of NRI are not allowed to board the flights even if they have emergencies at home. They may not be living here, but their families are in India. We have to look at their plight sympathetically. How long will they wait to sort out their urgent issues?
It is true that the government, Air India, and airport staff are doing their best and everyone is grateful. Some areas are very well-planned and coordinated. We have to acknowledge that. But there are lots of loopholes and glitches that should be looked into. The whole exercise of figuring out which flights to book, making a reservation, taking the flight, and reaching the end destination is really difficult and disappointing. People have no option but to take VBM flights because of Air India’s monopoly. It is definitely not a humanitarian project and neither is it the ‘biggest evacuation’ of all time – as projected by the government of India. The initial teething problems could be understood, but after two months of VBM, GOI needs to get its act together. It needs to think beyond the Vande Bharat Mission.
Update – After all the uproar over the exorbitant prices, the GOI has decided to reduce the rates in the fourth phase. It is a welcome change and should have been done much earlier. But what about the people who had to pay such a high cost for their desire/need to come back home urgently?