Published: 16:38, 25 March 2020
| Updated: 10:40, 26 March 2020
Dozens of Kent residents stranded in India are pleading for UK government help as they face appalling conditions.
Cllr Brian Sangha is among the stranded group and says European visitors are being treated as pariahs as police in the Punjab region enforce lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Currently stuck in a hotel in the Jalandhar area of Punjab, the Pelham ward councillor says about 90 Gravesend residents, including former Gurdwara president Bakhshish Singh Sodhi MBE, are among those who have had their hands stamped to designate potential coronavirus carriers and are being forced to stay in marked properties.
But his efforts to rally help from back home – backed by calls from Gurdwara officials back in Gravesend – have so far met with limited response, and the Gravesham cabinet member for strategic environment says the stranded group are growing increasingly fearful.
He described the Punjab police as "absolutely ruthless", adding: "We're staying in a hotel and if we step outside we get a wave of the cane and it's 'get back inside or face the consequences'.
"Some of the families in our group are elderly and they are beginning to show signs of anxiety and mental distress.
"In one village they put a label outside their door saying 'coronavirus immigrants' - they're from Gravesend.
"They've had their hands stamped to say '14 days home quarantine'. The Punjab government have said if you see any of these people outside their door then report them to the police, and the police are coming along with batons saying you get back inside.
"We're made to feel like pariahs. The perception is that Europeans have brought this into the country.
"I'm telling you, people are being stamped and their houses are being marked with posters."
Cllr Sangha said the former Gurdwara president had phoned him this morning in a state of distress.
"He said what do I do?" Cllr Sangha told KentOnline. "I could only say 'you've got to stay inside and stay safe; whatever you do don't venture outside.'
"We are being made to feel as if we are pariahs, as if the Europeans have brought the coronavirus. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has suddenly become invisible."
It's likely many more Gravesend residents are currently stuck in the region, which is a popular destination for families visiting relatives at this time of year, and Cllr Sangha has tried to contact as many of them as possible.
"The situation is getting worse by the hour, not just by the day," he added.
"The group of people we've got from Gravesend are becoming desperate. We've set up a WhatsApp group and you can tell their morale is beginning to flag.
"Some are running out of medication such as heart pills, which they only brought enough of for a couple of weeks.
"The government response is really quite poor. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has become more remote from people. I know we're in an age of new technology but I've been sending 15-18 emails a day to people in government and all I'm getting back is a standard email with travel advice. I need to speak to someone who understands we've got 90 people stuck here with some running out of medication.
"We've got an unprecedented situation but the government response has been slow - it's reactive rather than proactive. They're about three or four days behind developments."
His calls for help have been echoed by the Manpreet Singh Dhaliwal Mukh Sewadar and Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara of the Gravesend Gurdwara, who have written to Gravesham MP Adam Holloway, asking him to insist the FCO takes urgent action.
In a statement also sent to affected constituents, Mr Holloway said: "We do appreciate that this is a time of great anxiety for those individuals and for those who have relatives stuck in India - particularly the elderly. I know of one 91-year-old resident who is stuck.
"Scenes of panic buying overnight and descriptions of the lockdown in India have been well documented by British news outlets. "I do hope that those affected remain in good health, although I do note your point about medication which many of them require.
"It is unfortunate that events are moving incredibly fast as this virus unfolds and worldwide governments are often being given no notice of fundamental restrictions on travel within and outside of individual countries. With the ban on domestic travel in India too, it will undoubtedly be extremely challenging for international governments to negotiate with the Indian government although the UK government has indicated that they are actively doing so."
Mr Holloway's statement added: "This morning’s guidance on the Gov UK website www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/india/return-to-the-uk has changed as follows:
"We are working with the Indian authorities and airlines to support British nationals who want to leave India and return to the UK. "To support this we need to collect information on British nationals currently in India to advise when commercial flights to the UK become available.
"If you are a British national who is currently visiting India and you wish to return urgently to the UK, please email Conqry.Newdelhi@fco.gov.uk. Please include your full name (and the names of any family members with you), date/s of birth for all named family members), your passport number, visa status and contact details, including your exact location in India.
"We are working with the Indian authorities and airlines to support British nationals who want to leave India and return to the UK"
"Please confirm your date of arrival in India and details of the return flight that you had planned to take back to the UK. Please also inform us if you have any special circumstances such as a medical condition we may need to be aware of.'
"I hope that you have already seen this, but if not, then I would urge you to forward on to all those with relatives in stuck in India or are stuck there themselves. I would urge them to allplease follow updates on this link provided above for further updates from the UK government."
However, current advice on the same page this afternoon, added: "If you are a British national in India, you should be prepared to stay in the country until commercial flights resume. You will need to be ready to comply with local isolation, testing or quarantine requirements, and to rely on the local health system."
An FCO spokesman added: “We recognize British tourists abroad are finding it difficult to return to the UK because of the unprecedented international travel and domestic restrictions that are being introduced around the world - often with very little or no notice.
“The FCO is working around the clock to support British travellers in this situation to allow them to come back to the UK. The Government is seeking to keep key transit routes open as long as possible and is in touch with international partners and the airline industry to make this happen. Consular staff are supporting those with urgent need while providing travel advice and support to those still abroad.”
More by this authorChris Hunter