“I’m stranded in Pune, a three-hour drive from Mumbai,” Mehek Kumar, 42, a permanent resident of Hong Kong told HKFP via phone call. “My family, my son, husband and in-laws, are in Hong Kong. It’s been really difficult for me and my nine-year-old daughter who are stuck here.”

Kumar, the director of a company, is one of more than 1,000 Hong Kong residents who are stranded in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a country-wide lockdown on March 25, in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Pune, India. Photo: ananddhumal via Pixabay.

Kumar arrived in Mumbai in early March for what was meant to be a ten-day visit, to perform a series of religious rituals.

“Within two days of landing in Mumbai, I injured my back and got a slipped disc, and was unable to leave the country,” she said. “Then the lockdown started. With no one to help, a friend who lives in Pune brought me to her house. I was able to have a few physiotherapy sessions before Modi’s lockdown took full effect. Now, I am unable to get any treatment and I am in so much pain.”

Kumar also said the internet connection in the town where she is currently staying has been inconsistent, and her daughter has struggled to keep up with her online school work. Her daughter holds an HKSAR passport.

“She is missing so much school work and studying,” she said. “My family are waiting for us to come back. We also feel like we are an extra burden on the family that we are staying with as it’s not easy to get groceries because of the lockdown. They also have to feed their family.”

Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

Kumar is one of the hundreds of people part of a WhatsApp group, started by stranded residents in India, sharing Covid-19 information from the Hong Kong government and appealing to authorities for help. Conversations with the Hong Kong government started in the first week of April. So far they haven’t been given a clear response.

Schoanna Vaswani, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, who is also a permanent resident of Hong Kong, is currently stranded in Vadodara, a city in the Western state of Gujarat, with her parents.

“We are managing with only the very basic food ingredients and healthcare as there are extreme shortages,” she told HKFP. “There is only one grocery store and medical store in our area and we are not allowed out of the house.”

“We started reaching out [to the Hong Kong government] at the end of March,” said Vaswani. “There has been no committed response. I don’t believe it takes this long to organise and I don’t think we are being treated fairly at all. So many other countries have managed to get their residents out [of India] already.”

A view of an empty road from Schoanna Vaswani’s window. Photo: Schoanna Vaswani.

She said they keep telling her the “exact same thing” which is to “Call 1868 and to be patient,” in reference to an emergency hotline for Hong Kong residents. Vaswani has called the number numerous times and registered herself as a stranded resident. She said she has filled out multiple forms and given the government all the required information. But she has received no response.

Meanwhile, 65 residents returned to Hong Kong from Peru on April 5, with the help of the government. They took a chartered flight from Lima to London, where they boarded a regular flight to Hong Kong. On April 10, 27 Hongkongers were also rescued from Morocco on a government chartered flight.

The government has also sent charter flights to evacuate residents from the virus-stricken Princess Diamond cruise ship in Japan, Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province cities, the epicentre of the virus. 

“It’s just sad to see the differentiation in treatment,” said Vaswani. “If I was in Peru, I’d have been home ages ago.”

Chartered flight from Cusco to Lima, Peru. Photo: Apple Daily.

On April 17, the Secretary for Security, John Lee, met the former president of the India Association, Mohan Chugani, to discuss the matter. Chugani has been attempting to help those stranded in India.

Others present at the meeting include Chairperson of the pro-establishment New People’s Party, Regina Ip, New People’s Party member, Vijay Seth and two other Indian representatives. 

According to some people stuck in India, at the meeting, Lee promised that support would be offered but “operational and logistical” difficulties had prolonged the process.

“We had to put a lot of pressure on the government, but they have just started working on getting us back,” says Kumar. “But we still don’t know where we are.”

Another stranded permanent resident, Pranay Doshi, a 32-year-old sales manager who flew to Mumbai for work in late January, told HKFP that he too has “not received any answers from anyone.” 

“I respect the people working hard to bring us home, and I hope some good news and clarity comes out of this,” he said.

Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

Consul Ajith John Joshua, from the Indian Consulate in Hong Kong, told HKFP in a statement: “Some foreign governments have requested the government of India for permission to arrange special flights to bring back their nationals from India.”

“If the government of Hong Kong sends a similar proposal to the Consulate General of India in Hong Kong, we will process the proposal for obtaining necessary approvals from the government of India,” he added.

Countries including Britain and Bahrain have evacuated stranded residents and nationals from India. As of Monday, no request has been made by the Hong Kong government, and the Consulate has not been told if or when it will happen, according to Joshua.

“The government is dragging their feet,” Jeffrey Andrews, a Hong Kong-born social worker who works with ethnic minorities in the city, told HKFP. “We’re not just talking about Hong Kong residents but also people with Hong Kong passports. The question remains, why was it so easy to bring back residents from Wuhan or anywhere else? Every other government is doing it for their citizens.”

Indian flag. Photo: hari_mangayil via Pixabay.

Pro democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo is also helping the group in their quest. 

While the stranded Hong Kong residents and nationals remain hopeful that help will arrive soon, many of them can’t help but feel like they are an afterthought.

“We are not a small group of people,” said Vaswani. “There are over 1,000 of us and it’s just shocking to see the inaction by the government. We hope that this will be rectified as soon as possible.”

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Rhea Mogul

Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.