The special evacuation flights for thousands of Indians stranded in the United States due to the coronavirus-linked global travel restrictions are most likely to begin this week from San Francisco and other cities, according to officials.
While no exact dates have been announced yet, the flights could take off from San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington DC, the officials said.
Given that a large number of Indian students and visitors are stranded in the US because of the strict travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, more flights are likely to be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Community leaders have welcomed the move of the Indian government which on Monday announced that special flights facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds would begin in a phased manner from May 7.
The Indian embassy and its consulates in the US last week started preparing a list of Indians planning to travel back home. The list is being prepared through an online registration form.
"This is for the first time in my memory that such an evacuation effort is being carried out by the Indian government for its citizens in the US," Jaipur Foot USA Chairman Prem Bhandari said as he thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the efforts.
Bhandari, who had been receiving calls from various stranded Indians, sometimes from students seeking accommodation, or visitors who had run out of medicine, last week wrote a letter to Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, bringing to their attention the grave situation.
In the letter, he said: 'There are a large number of students who have run out of money. They don't have a place to stay. What is more worrisome is the fact that this uncertainty is having a toll on their mental and physical health.'
A large number of Indian visitors, in particular senior citizens and parents of those working in the US, have run out of their essential medicines.
To get them medicine, even with a traveler's health insurance, is often not affordable.
'The evacuation flight is the need of the hour. This shows how much this government cares for its citizens,' Bhandari said.
Over the past few weeks, several Indians have been reaching out to Indian Ambassador in the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu and the helpline established by it seeking an early repatriation back home.
'Please start some flights for Indian citizens on humanitarian grounds. We have critically ill senior citizen parents who are alone and have to be looked after. Please understand our plight and bring this to the notice of the Indian government,' one of them tweeted last week.
'Please look after students those who are under 22 years, they are alone in Penn State college want to come back Home please arrange airlift and give priorities to students and old people,' one student Asha Tiwari wrote on Twitter.
Some Indian origin people having Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cards have also sought help in travelling back to India.
'Please also take care of OCIs as well. I am a resident of India and working in India. My family is in India too. I visited US for a month and got stuck here,' wrote Kranthi Borra.
In a separate letter last week, Bhandari requested Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to waive off the visa extension fee of $455 given the exceptional circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
'The visa extension fee of $455 (including biometric service fee of $85) imposed by the US Department of State is further hitting these visitors real hard. As the Government of India is working tirelessly on expeditious repatriation of its citizens, I sincerely urge you to reconsider the visa extension fee and waive these charges on humanitarian grounds and as a gesture of compassion,' he said.
The Indian government in a statement said that medical screening of passengers would be done before the flight.
'Only asymptomatic passengers would be allowed to travel,' it said.
During the journey, all these passengers would have to follow the protocols, such as the Health Protocols, issued by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
On reaching the destination, everyone would have to register on the Arogya Setu app, the official statement said.
Everyone would be medically screened. After scrutiny, they would be quarantined for 14 days, either in a hospital or in an institutional quarantine on payment-basis, by the concerned state governments.
COVID-19 test would be done after 14 days and further action would be taken according to health protocols, it said.
The Ministries of External Affairs and Civil Aviation would soon share detailed information.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected over 1.2 million people and killed nearly 70,000 in the US, the worst affected country in the world.