Briton stranded in India

Other European nationals already repatriated

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A British retiree has described her fear and panic as she waits to hear whether she will be repatriated from India while tensions in the country grow after prime minister Narendra Modi forced the country into emergency lockdown.

Nita Lal, 68, from Macclesfield, is currently staying in a guesthouse in south Indian state Tamil Nadu, where staff have told her they are planning to close the business, and Lal has been warned food shortages will soon be a problem in the area.

Lal (pictured), who has been staying with other European guests, is currently the last person in the guesthouse waiting to hear when she will be repatriated, while other French and German guests have already been flown home by their respective governments.

Tensions are growing in India after the country, which has a population of 1.3 billion, was put under lockdown on 23 March with less than four hours notice in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Announcing the lockdown, Modi said there would be a total ban on people leaving their homes for 21 days – including a ban on domestic and international flights until mid-April.

Modi appealed for people not to panic, but crowds quickly mobbed stores in major cities and correspondents say it is not clear how people will be able to access food and other essentials.

At the time of writing (31 March) India has 1,251 confirmed cases of coronavirus, but experts warn the real number of infections could be far higher as the country has one of the lowest testing rates in the world.

“I’m the only British person here that I know of. The guesthouse I’m staying in has been very helpful but they want to close.”

Lal was due to fly home on 6 April from Chennai Airport but the airline cancelled the flight after Modi’s announcement, and as of 31 March Lal is yet to hear when she will be repatriated.

Lal, a former English teacher, said: “I’m the only British person here that I know of. The guesthouse I’m staying in has been very helpful but they want to close – we are the last guesthouse that’s still open. Management aren’t telling us everything but they look pretty panic-stricken.

“I can’t go out. I can’t leave the guesthouse. The police are beating people in the street with sticks. We’ve got enough water but it’s getting more difficult by the day to get food. There’s only one supermarket in the whole area. There are a couple of cafes that are going to do takeaways, but we don’t want to be going out in the dark, so we’d have to get it in the daytime.

“Money is difficult as well. There’s no money in any of the banks. We’ve managed to draw out 2,000 rupees a day, which is around £20, if we need it, but we need money to get back. Getting to the airport is another worry, especially if I’m on my own. It doesn’t feel safe, and it feels less safe because everybody is leaving.”

Lal has been warned nearby farms may face problems supplying food in the coming weeks, and she is concerned about the prospect of needing medical treatment.

She said: “We’re only at the beginning in India. There are only a few cases and that’s why Modi has taken action, which I think is really great, but we don’t know how it is going to escalate. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world. People have been talking about the poor state of Indian hospitals as a result of overcrowding.”

In the past week India has also experienced a mass exodus as millions of workers fled shuttered cities and walked hundreds of miles back to their villages – turning them into refugees overnight.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy likened the chaos in India as a result of the emergency lockdown to the 1947 Partition.

She said: “To announce something like this with no preparation and to call it a lockdown, in order to enforce social distancing, in India it has the opposite effect – it’s like social compression. The big roads are empty but inside people are squashed into their homes or they are walking in their hundreds of thousands for hundreds of kilometres, and they are getting beaten by police. They have no food and no water. It is unthinkable.”

Earlier this week the government announced it was partnering with commercial airlines to repatriate stranded British travellers on charter flights, but Lal is yet to hear when she will be able to fly home.

“I want them to communicate with me. I would like some form of reassurance. I want to know that my name is on the list, that they are aware of my existence. I would like a flight and safe passage to the airport.

“I feel utterly alone, overlooked and neglected.”

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement: “This is a worrying time for many British citizens travelling abroad. We’ve already worked with airlines and governments to enable hundreds of thousands to return home on commercial flights, and we will keep as many of those options open as possible.

“Where commercial flights are not possible, we will build on the earlier charter flights we organised back from China, Japan, Cuba, Ghana and Peru. The arrangements agreed today will provide a clearer basis to organise special charter flights where Britons find themselves stranded. Our priority will always be the most vulnerable.”

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