Melbourne to Amritsar: A Punjab resident narrates repatriation journey

By Indira Laisram
Raghbir Singh

Air India came to the rescue of Raghbir Singh stranded in Australia on a holiday

In March, Raghbir Singh, a Punjab resident, took a short holiday to visit his sister who lives in Tasmania. It would be his first trip to Australia and he was determined to make the most of his three-week stay. He reached Hobart on 11 March but just around ten days later, the Australian government announced a nationwide lockdown following the outbreak of COVID-19.

Singh did not envisage his holiday in Australia to turn out this way. It will definitely remain one of his memorable foreign trips for a long time to come.

Though his return ticket was scheduled for 6 April, the governments of both India and Australia had closed their borders, and Singh became one of the thousands of Indians stranded in Australia. He would go on to stay for another six weeks. Luckily, his visa was valid till mid-June.

Singh started contacting the Indian High Commission in Canberra and that’s when he received a mail for registration expressing interest to go back to India. “After I registered on 7 May, I received an email on 16 May that I was shortlisted. The next day, Air India contacted me and on 20 May, I got my tickets,” said Singh on phone from Faridkot. Fortunately for Singh, he did not spend a lot more and paid only $855 as he was already booked with the airline from the start.

“There were 234 people on board my flight. They had placed packed food on the seats beforehand and nothing else was provided later. Once we landed in Delhi, we were asked to remain seated for two hours as our onward destination was Amritsar”

Singh flew from Hobart to Melbourne on 20 May. He had two nights of stay in Melbourne with relatives which gave him a glimpse of “how beautiful the city is”.

Two days later, Singh boarded the historic Air India repatriation flight from Melbourne to Amritsar. At Melbourne airport, temperatures were checked and inside the aircraft Singh wore a face shield and a mask. Not quite a comfortable gear for a 16-hour journey but in his mind, Singh felt happy and lucky to be among the many passengers heading back home.

Air India ran special operations from Australia to various cities in India 21-28 May as part of the Indian government’s phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad.

Recalling his journey and speaking from his home in Faridkot, Singh says, the Air India flight was good overall. “There were 234 people on board. They had placed packed food on the seats beforehand and nothing else was provided later. Once we landed in Delhi, we were asked to remain seated for two hours as our onward destination was Amritsar,” he says.

After 16 hours on flight, Singh’s plane touched down Amritsar at 8 pm on 23 May. Passengers were then separated on the basis of their districts and put into respective vehicles with police escort.

“On our arrival, social distancing rules were observed, our temperatures were checked and we had to fill up forms for quarantine,” he recalls.

Raghbir Singh

The authorities gave them two options—to stay in a hotel or at a government provided facility such as a school. “If we chose to stay in a hotel, we had to stay there for 14 days and pay the bill ourselves.  But if we opted for a government facility, they would take the test for COVID-19 and provide us with results early. If the results proved negative, we could self-quarantine at home,” says Singh, who chose the latter.

“I opted for the government school as it was a matter of few nights. The facility was clean and we got good food as well. They put two people in one big room. My family members could come to meet me.”

After six nights and with his tests results negative, Singh is now revelling in the ultimate comfort of his home.

However, not every stranded Indian in Australia has been as lucky a Singh. At this point, there are still hundreds waiting for the next government announcement for more rescue flights.

Singh is grateful to the governments of both India and Australia for having made these travel arrangements. He hopes to visit Australia again but with his family. “This is a pandemic which was beyond our control. I got to do only 50% of touristy stuff.”

Rest assured, says Singh, he will complete the other 50% in times to come.

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