Talks to extend a temporary travel corridor between the UAE and India are under way to help bring thousands of residents back to the Emirates, a diplomat said.
The UAE and India grounded flights in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Regular passenger flights have yet to resume in India, but the two countries agreed to operate select flights between July 12 and 26 to bring residents back to the UAE.
Several thousand have travelled to the Emirates from India on UAE and Indian carriers during the 15-day window that is due to end on Sunday.
Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador to the UAE, said he was hopeful the flights will continue.
"The key thing we are trying to ensure is that there is no break in the process, so we'll continue with the arrangement for another week or 10 days," Mr Kapoor told The National.
"And in the meantime, we explore the idea of creating an air corridor like we have done with some other countries."
“We hope to continue with this arrangement for the next few days until we can get an agreement on the way ahead. That way we would have one system that seamlessly moves into the other.”
No details about the air corridor, number of flights per week, the airlines or terms of operation were available.
India is also in discussion with the US and France to set up air travel bubbles and has allowed American carrier United and French airline Air France to operate flights from India until the end of the month.
An air bubble is an arrangement between two countries that permits airlines from both to fly under an agreed regulations.
A group of residents in Dubai have approached the embassy, consulate and written to UAE authorities to appeal for more flights from India and quick approvals for entry to the Emirates.
“We are hopeful about the process to get UAE residents from India that is being worked out by authorities,” said Rahul Tulpule, vice president of the Gulf Maharashtra Business Forum, who previously helped secure permissions for flights to repatriate people on the reverse route – from the Emirates to India.
About 210,000 Indians have been repatriated from the UAE since May 7.
And an estimated 10,000 UAE residents have travelled back to the Emirates from India over the past few weeks.
Residents anxious to return have pooled in upward of Dh135,000 to charter private jets or planned lengthy routes to get back to family.
“People who are affected have started panicking and are very anxious when they don’t get approvals,” Mr Tulpule said.
“We explain to them that the process needs to be done in a step-by-step manner by authorities and everything is headed in the right direction.”
Dubai residents must apply for entry approvals to the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs.
Those returning from other emirates must have approval from the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship portal, or ICA.
In several cases, residents who live in one emirate but work in other parts of the UAE are awaiting permission to return.
Aqueel Sharif, a technician who works with a metals company, hopes to return with his family soon. His seven-year-old son has received ICA approval and the rest of the family awaits clearance.
Mr Sharif, 34, flew to Andhra Pradesh in southern India in March, when his father-in-law had a stroke.
“We were supposed to be in India for 10 days and then the travel shutdowns were announced,” said the father, who lives in Sharjah and works in Abu Dhabi.
“My company has been supportive so far but everyone is back to work in the UAE so I need to return as soon as possible so there is no chance of me losing my job. My tenancy also will expire next week and I need to be there in person to extend the contract.”
Some UAE residents have been paying rent, electricity charges and school fees while overseas for the past five months.
Smrithi Raj, a Sharjah resident who works in Dubai, checks hourly for updates regarding entry.
She hopes to return to the Emirates from Trivandrum, in southern India, with her husband and daughter, 5, soon.
“I have never refreshed websites and checked my email as much as in the last few months,” said Ms Raj, 31, who has lived in the UAE for more than a decade and works in the oil and gas sector.
“Our companies have sent us final reminders to return to work, so I’m hoping to get our approvals so we can make it back this week.
“Everyone in my office is back at work and so they get their salary.
“We have been paying all bills since March without fail although we are on unpaid leave. We hope this stress will end soon and we can come back.”
Dubai resident Kamini Kannan set up groups on WhatsApp and Telegram that have helped update more than 1,000 families in India with information about Covid-19 testing requirements, approvals and flights.
“We try to explain any new changes to people who may be in small Indian cities where there is sometimes no PCR testing facility and advise them which city to go to,” she said.
“They worry that once the window of flights ends on July 26, they will remain in India.”
Ms Kannan, 52, has returned to her family in the UAE after four months away.
She is part of a group of Indian residents who will meet consulate officials to take up the cases of people who remain in India.
“We have had to counsel people so they don’t get too dejected. Some have come on charter flights but that is not possible for everyone,” Ms Kannan said.
“People are trying their best to help each other with information. We motivate and talk to each other because so many more want to come back to their homes in the UAE.”