Happy to be back home

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Mr Pritam Singh was apprehensive. He is 80 years old, has weak legs and a hearing problem.

Would he be able to endure the 400km, seven-hour bus ride from his ancestral village near Moga city in Punjab to New Delhi?

Besides, it was coronavirus lockdown period in India and he might not get access to toilet breaks, proper meals and regular care.

But the Singaporean need not have unduly worried. There were a couple of difficult situations en route but they arrived unexpectedly.

He wanted to get back to Singapore, after being in India for more than four months, and got himself registered for the special flight Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had organised to fly stranded Singaporeans and Permanent Residents back home on April 10.

A mini-bus, arranged by the Singapore High Commission in New Delhi, picked up Mr Singh at his village early in the morning. But it broke down along the way and he and the five other passengers in it had to wait for two hours before another vehicle arrived.

They were then stopped by the police at a checkpoint because the vehicle was different from the one on the official list. But the issue was soon resolved by MFA officials and they were let through to New Delhi airport.

"We were a bit anxious as it was a special flight and he was travelling alone," said his daughter Mohindar Kaur, who was at home in Singapore. "There was a slight delay. But we knew what was happening all along the route to New Delhi as the MFA gave us hourly updates.

"The MFA actually did a good job. He got all the support he needed, including a wheelchair, and reached New Delhi airport safely. Once he got on to the Singapore Airlines flight, we knew that we did not have to worry any more."

The MFA said 699 Singapore citizens and residents returned from India to Singapore amid the coronavirus pandemic on three flights from New Delhi (with a stopover in Mumbai) and Chennai last Friday and Saturday.

"Due to the national lockdown across India, many of them had to travel from surrounding states to reach the airports in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, where the chartered flights operated," it said.

"The Singapore High Commission in New Delhi, Singapore Consulate-General in Mumbai and the Singapore Consulate-General in Chennai coordinated the evacuation and ground operations in India."

Mr Singh had gone to India on Nov 8 last year for his annual holiday. His return flight was booked for March 27 from Amritsar. But it was cancelled following the Indian government's decision to ban all international flights to stem the spread of the coronavirus following a nationwide lockdown on March 25.

"My father's visa was expiring on April 22 and we were wondering what to do," said Ms Mohindar. "Then we heard that the MFA was organising special flights and decided to register him. Things really moved smoothly after that."

Singapore Permanent Resident Deepali Ramesh, too, was tense after her return flight from Mumbai on March 28 was cancelled.

She had gone to the city on March 4 after her father fell seriously ill and stayed back after he passed away 10 days later to complete the rituals. Soon after, the lockdown was announced.

"There was so much uncertainty as no one knew what was happening," said the homemaker. "I was staying with my mother at Andheri and heard about the special flight the MFA was organising. I immediately registered but was not sure if it would work out. I was desperate to return to Singapore as my husband and younger daughter were on their own." (The elder daughter was in Ireland.)

Her problems were compounded as she had left her passport in another house in Chembur. It meant seeking the local MLA's help and the police's permission to collect it.

"I managed to get my passport two days before the flight (on April 10) but I had to ask the Singapore consulate staff in Mumbai to arrange my pick-up from Chembur," she said. "They patiently answered my silliest of queries and made the arrangements for my trip from my house in Chembur (along with seven others) to the airport. Two staff were with us all through and took care of everything."

According to Mrs Ramesh, around 60 people boarded the flight, which arrived from New Delhi, in Mumbai.

Ms Sanskriti Singh, who boarded the flight in New Delhi along with her mother Mamta, said there were nearly 350 people on it.

"The flight was packed and there were several elderly people on it. The Singapore Airlines crew took good care of us," said the 18-year-old Singapore Permanent Resident who had gone to India in early March to visit relatives.

She had booked a return ticket from Kolkata on April 4. But the flight was cancelled and she was stuck in Noida, a city in Uttar Pradesh which is close to New Delhi.

"It was a smooth ride to the airport as the MFA organised everything very well," she said. "We had a few forms to fill at the airport and on board the flight we were provided with food and water. We arrived in Singapore early next morning."

Singapore residents Vijaya Ashok Kumar, 48, and Ravi Shankar Vedam, 52, too had a smooth trip on the MFA-arranged Scoot flight from Chennai

Both had gone to the southern Indian city for personal work and couldn't return to Singapore earlier because of the lockdown.

"I didn't expect a 21-day lockdown," said Mrs Vijaya, a homemaker. "Initially, I was a bit anxious, but I did not face any serious issues in Chennai as I could stay in my mother-in-law's house and purchase things from department stores.

"And when I wanted to return home on the Scoot flight, the MFA organised everything so systematically."

Businessman Vedam initially "found it difficult" as he could not move around freely in Chennai. "But there was no shortage of stuff," he said. "I could order whatever I wanted online and it would be delivered home."

The only hitch he faced was when he tried to reach the Singapore consulate at T. Nagar which was near his house. He could not find transport. A friend who had a pass finally took him there. "Once I reached the consulate, everything proceeded smoothly," he said.

On reaching Singapore, the 699 Singaporeans and PRs were given health checks and briefed by ICA officials. They were then assigned different hotels in the city - such as Pan Pacific, Novotel On Stevens and Royal Plaza on Scotts - to spend their 14-day quarantine.

"I have a beautiful room with all facilities and the staff is taking good care of me," said Mrs Vijaya, who is quarantined at the InterContinental. "I get all the food I need. I have to report to the ICA every day but I have no complaints. I'm happy and looking forward to being home on April 25."

santosh@sph.com.sg

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