The number of repatriation flights from the UAE to India is set to more than double from next week as officials step up efforts to allow citizens to return home.
About 420,000 people have registered with the Indian consulate and embassy seeking to fly back to India, including elderly people, those with medical conditions, and many who had lost jobs because of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Those hoping to land seats on flights include people returning from holidays and college students in the Emirates.
Indian citizens in the Emirates have appealed for more flights from the UAE, which is home to the world's largest non-resident Indian population of more than 3.4 million.
Only 25 flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi on government carriers Air India Express and Air India have been announced during the third Vande Bharat or Salute India repatriation phase that began on Tuesday.
So far, about 21,000 Indians have flown home on more than 90 flights since services began on May 7.
"There will be a significant increase in the flights from June 20 onwards, it will be more than two to three times the existing flights," Neeraj Agrawal, consul for press in Dubai told The National.
“We are in the stage of finalising these slots and a detailed schedule will be announced soon.”
Of the total passengers, 14,300 people departed on 80 flights from Dubai as of Monday. The bodies of 50 people were also repatriated.
The consulate had last week appealed for patience from the community as officials attempted to prioritise people seeking to return.
Pregnant Jubiriya Abdul Khadher is among those anxiously checking the manifest for her name.
The 24-year-old is on a visit visa and was to return to Kannur, in southern India’s Kerala state, on March 30 when the UAE shut down air travel.
“This will be our first child, and we are desperate that she should go home because we will not have proper medical coverage,” said Shahavas Valappil, her husband, an accountant in Abu Dhabi.
“We have been told she is on the priority list and I’m calling everyone to get her on a flight home. We are very worried.”
Social workers said it would take months to clear the numbers unless more flights were requisitioned.
Abu Dhabi resident VTV Damodaran has written to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging additional flights.
“The expatriate community is in deep distress and there are numerous cases of hardship, both financial and emotional. There is need for an urgent resolution,” said Mr Damodaran, head of Gandhi Sahitya Vedi, a group that organises programmes on Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings.
“It will take months to evacuate stranded people which will only result in more misery to people struggling here. The Vande Bharat mission is a good initiative but it is not enough as there are thousands of people waiting.”
The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi plans to charter 40 flights to transport 6,000 people but said clearances would take time.
The privately chartered aircraft were in addition to flights organised by the Indian government where fares are capped at about Dh750.
Shukoor Ali Kallungal, president of the Kerala community group, hopes the chartered flights will not be required.
“Once the Vande Bharat mission increases flights, we will not need to organise special charters,” he said.
“These are only being organised so we can clear more people who want to leave. The [Indian] government is trying but much more needs to be done.”
Repatriation flights - in pictures
He said in several cases people who signed up for repatriation have changed their minds.
“When we call people who have registered, many are in quarantine or in isolation so they can’t leave and some say they want to wait in case they get a job here.”
India gradually eased a strict lockdown last month to allow limited international and domestic flights and eased road travel to slow the spread of the disease in the world’s second most populous country.
About 70,000 Indian nationals have been flown home from across the world.
Travellers are asked to home quarantine or placed for 14 days in hotels near the airport.