Kerala HC asks Centre to take steps to bear travel cost of expats in need

Kochi (Kerala) [India], May 10 (ANI): The Kerala High Court has asked the Union government to take steps in assisting the return of citizens stranded abroad amid the COVID-19 crisis, if they are facing difficulties in paying for flight tickets.

While issuing an interim order on a batch of PILs concerning the return and welfare of Indians stranded in other countries, particularly Gulf countries, the bench of Justices Shaji P Chaly and MR Anitha said, "...We observe that in case, any expatriate expresses difficulty to pay flight charges and if it is found to be genuine, the embassy and missions of the Government of India may take steps in coordination with other non-government organizations abroad for the transportation of such persons, if they have secured necessary registration with the appropriate authorities for their repatriation."

In the course of passing the order, the bench also mused on the rights conferred under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution to emphasise, "the freedom of movement to reach the territory of India cannot be curbed by the State ordinarily and normally. Similarly, Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees the citizens' personal liberty to travel abroad and return to India."

On Friday, the court was told that citizens stranded abroad can register to purchase tickets through the application put out by Indian Embassies.

With respect to Kerala, the bench was told that NORKA (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs) registration of non-residents wishing to return to India is also being done through its web site and that the total number of non-resident Keralites registered as on May 6 stood at 4,52,039.

The Kerala High Court was apprised by the arrangements in place to bring back expatriates from Gulf countries by the Central and State governments, including the quarantine protocol outlined.

Further, the Bench was informed that the government is prioritising the return of migrant workers/labourers who have been laid off, short term visa holders faced with expiry of visas, persons with medical emergency/pregnant women/the elderly and citizens required to return to India due to death of family member and students.

Inter alia, the court was also told that there were certain differences between the quarantine protocol outlined by the Kerala government and the Standard Operating Protocol for quarantine issued by the Centre.

Appearing for the Kerala government, Additional Advocate General Ranjith Thampan told the bench that the Kerala and Central governments are corresponding over the issue.

Notably, the Kerala government also told the court that the differences in protocol are partly owing to the fact that returnees from the UAE are made to undergo a rapid antibody test before their departure, and further that only passengers who test negative for COVID-19 are permitted to travel.

The court, in turn, noted that the respective government authorities had chalked out an action plan for the return of expatriates, at least until May 13. Therefore, it decided not to pass any orders on the issue, instead opting to adjourn the case to May 12, so that it may be appraised of the resolution of the discrepancies noted in quarantine protocol.

Responding to concerns raised by certain petitioners, Central government Counsel Suvin R Menon also assured the court that nodal agencies, through Indian embassies, were available to cater to any medical treatment request made by the Indians stranded abroad during this period. Therefore, the court has refrained from passing any orders on this count as well.

The court added, "... it is quite evident and clear that the Government of India has taken adequate steps to redress the grievances of the expatriates taking into account the prevailing circumstances, in the country, internationally and state-specific. We are also hopeful and confident that all possible steps would be taken hereafter also to alleviate their grievances, and further that the Centre and the State would work in tandem to achieve the aim of repatriation and the consequential actions." (ANI)