Not possible to evacuate Indians stranded in USA amid Covid-19: Centre to SC

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April 21, 2020 9:18 PM

A bench of Justices N V Ramana, S K Kaul and B R Gavai observed that the US government was extending visas of stranded Indians, who are spread across America, and it would be difficult for the court to pass direction for bringing them back at this stage. 

USA is reported to be worst affected by COVID-19 with deaths of over 40,000 and more than 7.25 lakh cases of virus infection.

The Centre Tuesday told the Supreme Court that it would not be possible to evacuate Indian citizens stranded in the US due to travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic and bring them back at this stage. Taking note of the submission, the top court observed that it would pass any order for the evacuation now.

The government, which placed a status report before the apex court and apprised it of steps taken by the Centre, said that representations could be made within two weeks regarding “specific vulnerable people” stranded in USA to the designated officers as mentioned in the list attached with the report filed by the Ministry of External Affairs.

A bench of Justices N V Ramana, S K Kaul and B R Gavai observed that the US government was extending visas of stranded Indians, who are spread across America, and it would be difficult for the court to pass direction for bringing them back at this stage.

“In reply to prayer made in the instant petition preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, a detailed status report has been filed, setting out the steps already taken by the Government of India, showing its proactive approach,” the bench noted in its order. “However, the Solicitor General submits that it would not be possible to evacuate people from the US to India at this stage,” noted the bench, which disposed of the plea seeking direction to the Centre to bring back vulnerable Indian citizens, particularly those on temporary visas, from the US.

Regarding the submissions of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta about representing to designated officers, the bench said, “On such a representation being filed by the petitioners, the concerned authorities are directed to consider the same on its own merits and take appropriate steps to ameliorate the conditions of those in USA.”

During the hearing, which was conducted through video-conference, the top court observed that the coronavirus pandemic is a worldwide problem and every country is doing its best to deal with the situation. “They cannot be brought in, no matter how much we want. Assistance is being given to them. They are spread across US and cannot be brought back. The US government is extending the visas. Let us wait for some time,” the bench observed.

USA is reported to be worst affected by COVID-19 with deaths of over 40,000 and more than 7.25 lakh cases of virus infection. Senior advocate Vibha Datta Makhija, who had filed the plea, told the bench that application for visa extension costs around USD 500 and there was no guarantee of visa getting extended. “It is a different government. We cannot control their decisions. Indian government can request the US government to not create problems in the visa extension,” said the bench.

The solicitor general told the bench that evacuation from foreign countries was done earlier but “now, internationally it has been stopped”. Separately, the bench also heard a plea seeking evacuation of around 800 Indian fishermen who are stranded in Iran amid restrctions due to the pandemic.

The solicitor general informed the bench that there is an “inter-provincial lockdown” in Iran and the Indian Embassy there is taking care of the citizens of India. “We are in touch with the Embassy of Iran. The Iranian authorities have been in touch with them. They are on a long term visa. There is Inter-provincial lockdown in Iran,” he said.

Mehta said that Indian Embassy and consulate have also been in touch with these fishermen and making arrangements for adequate food supply to them. The counsel appearing for the petitioner raised the issue of supply of food and water to these fishermen and alleged that they have received a memo from Iran over WhatsApp as per which, the Embassy has not paid to the company which was given charge to supply food to them. However, Mehta said all necessary help have been extended to them through the Embassy. “We accordingly direct the respondents (Centre and others) officers to look intonthe grievance of the petitioner and attend the same,” the bench said in its order and disposed of the plea.

The petition, filed by the wife of one of the fishermen stranded in Iran, had claimed that these fishermen are mostly from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat and are stranded in boats stationed in shores of Bandar-e Moqam and Lavan Island in Hormozgan province of Iran.

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