The western coastal belt of Kerala and Karnataka, home to a large number of emigrants, is abuzz with anticipation. With flights from across the world scheduled to start arriving with stranded Indians, both families and public health officials have been in the midst of preparations.
Two coastal regions in particular—the Malabar in Kerala and the Konkan along the seaboard of Karnataka—account for more than 720,000 people who work in the Gulf.
Naturally, the international airports at Mangaluru in Karnataka and Kozhikode in Kerala are expecting a flood of arrivals from West Asian countries over the next few weeks. Both airports are fully geared for the first wave.
“The ministry of civil aviation is yet to schedule any incoming flight to Mangaluru airport in the first seven days (8 to 17 May). However, we have kept the airport fully functional. Testing, quarantine-on-arrival and a few other facilities are in place," said V.V. Rao, airport director of the Mangalore International Airport.
Kozhikode international airport will receive five flights during the week with approximately 250 passengers in each. According to the Department of Non-Resident Kerala Affairs, a state government body, over 170,000 expats from Kerala have registered to come back. Kannur has the most, with over 21,000 signing up to get on the flights.
Both Mangaluru and Kozhikode international airports have adequate facilities for receiving large aircraft, and are well-connected by road running through cities along the coast.
“Passengers, however, will be quarantined in the cities where the airports are situated," said a state home ministry official in Kerala on condition of anonymity. “The administrations of both cities have been told to find and book hotel rooms, hostels, guest houses and other accommodation. The accommodation will be fully chargeable to the person who occupies it, as will airport hotel transfers and other facilities."
Praveen Shetty, president of the NRI Forum in Dubai, said many members of the Karnataka NRI forum are ready to fly down directly to Mangaluru but were hampered by the absence of any direct flight to Mangaluru from Dubai.
“I am sure the government of India will provide us with flights in the next lot. Many of us are eager to come back and stay with our families in Mangaluru and Udupi till the world gets the coronavirus off its back," Shetty said.
But the Konkan coast has a larger problem. Mangaluru is the only international airport in Karnataka other than Bengaluru. Even if flights land in Mangaluru, people travelling to the northern parts of the state or to Goa will have to drive up to 450km in the middle of a partial lockdown. In addition, state borders too have been closed.
Normally, many expats from Kerala prefer to arrive at Mangaluru and drive up to nearby Kasargod or Kannur district of Kerala. Now, before they can start on the road journey, they will be quarantined in Mangaluru.
“We have made arrangements with hotels and many other forms of accommodation, which are safe for quarantine in the city," said Sindhu Rupesh, deputy commissioner of Dakshina Kannada district.
“Right now, only a few hotels are fully operational, but that is okay. We are looking at a situation where many people are already declared safe before they board the flight," she said.
“In any case, there is no indication yet as to how many will arrive in Mangaluru and when," she added.
M. Raghuram is a freelance writer based in Mangaluru.