Indian nationals stranded here, register your interest: Gitesh Sarma, India’s High Commissioner to Australia

His Excellency GITESH SARMA talks to PAWAN LUTHRA about evacuation flights, international students, and other issues.

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High Commissioner, the Government of India has announced that beginning 7 May, some 14,800 passengers will be evacuated from 13 different countries including Philippines, Singapore, Bangladesh UK, US Singapore etc but Australia has not been listed. Any idea of the timing of it all for Indians stranded in Australia?

As of last week, we started collecting information on Indians who are stranded in Australia. We don’t have dates of the flights from Australia yet and we will put it on social media and other platforms when we do.

Those interested in going back to India should fill up the forms on our social media providing all the necessary information. Right now, we need to know the numbers, locations, and document details of individuals.

Will evacuees be picked on a priority basis? And will it be for Indian nationals only?

Everyone looking to register their interest in flying back can be assured that this will be a fair process based on information from our questionnaire. Compelling situations will probably get priority, but that doesn’t mean that the others should be disappointed.

Right now, we’re focusing on Indian stranded. Taking developments of the pandemic into account, we’ll consider changes.

Are the flights free of charge?

At this stage, we can say that evacuation is on a payment basis but we don’t know the exact amount yet. Indian stranded who are filling up the forms for evacuation should be prepared to pay for it.

What is the arrangement once they arrive in India?

Indians who are flying back will need to go through quarantine arrangements that are set up across India by their respective state governments. The mandatory duration of the quarantine is two weeks. 

This travel does have risks for both the travellers and people in India, so safety of all is our priority.

What has been done to help Indian students in Australia who may be struggling?

Many students and their families have been challenged during these times. The Australian government has been very sympathetic and open to our ideas and suggestions. We took up the issue with Education Minister Dan Tehan and concerned government departments.

Universities were given guidance to make plans and provide packages to assist their international students, and they have done so. This is all still a work in progress in this unprecedented time.

Prior to Covid 19, there was a senior trade delegation from Australia which visited India led by Senator Simon Birmingham. What is the status on the trade and diplomatic relations between the countries that was meant to be pushed forward this year?

A whole series of engagements and interactions at different levels, sectors, and departments were planned. The physical portions became less feasible because of the pandemic, but we are continuing to work as we can use technology.

Our Prime Ministers, foreign ministers, external affairs ministers have been in touch, discussing bilateral issues and global affairs. It’s a special, close tie between the countries.

Will India support Australia’s efforts in wanting to know the origins of the coronavirus?

We will be in touch with Australia on global affairs, including the pandemic that needs to be understood. We will work together to develop medical and scientific responses. There has been communication in this area and Australia has had success in understanding the science behind the pandemic.

What are the possibilities of continuing with the T20 World Cup and India’s visiting games in Australia?

Both our countries are passionate about the game and their matches excite cricket fans around the world. We do want to see restoration of normal life like a good game of cricket. 

What has changed with your own life because of the pandemic?

I never imagined a life where we would all be isolated, helpless at certain times. But we learned that it’s possible to defeat the pandemic by staying mentally strong and organised. Australia has succeeded because of excellent planning and implementation. I salute the human spirit.

We are part of the Indian, Australian, and global family. I wish happiness and good health to everyone during this time and praise the people of Australia for the way they are coming out of this pandemic.

What has been your experience of working with the Indian diaspora to help those in need during the last 2 months?

I arrived here in November – almost immediately in the bushfires [situation]. The Indian community was at the forefront in various ways – firefighters, victims, helpers. And that’s the way the Indian community is. We maintain our identity, while at the same time integrating beautifully. That is why I think the Indian community is respected everywhere. When I look back over the couple of months that we have been through this pandemic, my respect for the community has grown by leaps and bounds. I have immense admiration for the community members. It’s not like we told people what to do, it was the other way round. The Indian community organised themselves, they sensed the problem, and they didn’t come with complaints, but instead with constructive solutions. It shows how compassionate they are. I can relate hundreds of instances that the community has been special and I’m really blessed to have such an easy task to work with such an Indian community.

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