Pandemic Heroes: Meet the NRI businessman who brought back 250 Indians from the US during lockdown
Raju and Surekha, who work as advocates at the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, were stuck in the US due to the shutdown of international flights during the lockdown. They had tried all available options, but couldn’t find the means to return to India.
The nationwide lockdown in India, as well as restrictions across the world, not just affected the country’s residents, but many citizens overseas were also unable to come back home. Despite the government’s Vande Bharat repatriation flights, pregnant women, senior citizens, exchange students, non-Indian citizens with Indian parents, as well as those who couldn’t afford to buy the tickets, couldn't onboard the flights.
That’s when Washington DC-based Telugu NRI businessman Ravi Puli decided that something needed to be done.
The businessman and his team of volunteers arranged a privately chartered flight for 250 Indians from the US to return to India. The passengers were picked up from different cities across the US and flown to Hyderabad.
In a conversation with SocialStory, Ravi talks about how he went about this huge initiative, that brought a smile of relief to the faces of many.
Locked out of India
“When the lockdown began In India, I started receiving calls from many people who were desperate to travel back to our country – people who lost their jobs, people who came on a vacation or a visit, and primarily university students whose hostels were shut down,” says the NRI businessman.
Many of the students on an exchange programme were grappling to find a way out. There were very few flights back out of the country, and getting a reservation was near impossible.
Ravi and his family were also planning to return, however, he had to cancel the trip due to the lockdown.
That’s when he received a call from a student’s parents. The student was studying in Washington DC, and was stuck at the airport and sent to a detention centre. However, through his contacts, Ravi was able to get in touch with the Indian Embassy and arrange a ticket for the boy.
“The Embassy had collected the information of all those who wanted to travel back to India on the Vande Bharat flights, but had restrictions regarding those who could travel – such as naturalised US citizens could not get on these flights despite their parents being Indian,” explains Ravi.
US India Solidarity Mission (USISM)
Hearing many such stories, Ravi decided to help those who couldn’t get on the Vande Bharat flights. He spoke to the Embassy which then sent a request to allow him to arrange a private chartered flight.
“There was a challenge of finding an airline that could work with the restricted norms, which was quite a big exercise,” expresses Ravi. “In addition, I had to coordinate with three countries – the US, India, and Qatar to get clearances from the respective international airports.”
With the guidance of the Embassy, he understood the norms of the new normal and formed the non-profit ‘US India Solidarity Mission’ (USISM). In the days that followed, he signed contracts with airlines and got in touch with the passengers to understand their situation.
“I was successfully able to talk to Qatar Airways, which had got the clearance from the US government. However, there were two flights – US to Doha, and from Doha to Hyderabad.”
To manage the operations of the initiative, he enlisted a few volunteers and set up a call centre. Many students and friends of friends also joined the team as a part of the voluntary social service.
From commoners to the children of a sitting state minister, a lot of people who were rendered helpless got in touch with the team. The 30-member team received about 50,000 phone calls, almost working as an extension of the Indian Embassy in the US.
The team conducted background checks on the passengers and worked for 21 days straight to initiate the repatriation.
Ravi funded the entire initiative from his own pocket. Each ticket cost about $2,000 for the economy class and $5,000 for the business class. While most people wanting to return could pay for their tickets, Ravi offered free tickets to the students who could not one.
“I was able to negotiate the prices with a commercial airline, and finally got the tickets to reasonable prices. I was also able to upgrade about 40 people to the business class, prioritising pregnant women, senior citizens, and people with an illness,” says Ravi.
“Even after the flight landed in India, I still got calls from citizens asking for help. But with Air India increasing the number of flights, this crisis has now cooled down,” he adds.
Testimonials of gratitude
The passengers of the flight remain grateful to Ravi for his initiative.
“Due to a death in family, I had to go to come to India along with my wife from Mexico. It was almost impossible as we had to deal with Mexico, US, Qatar, and India, which was possible only with because of coordination with all the parties involved in facilitating our travel,” says Seshu, one of the passengers who had travelled from Mexico.
“My sister came to visit me in the US and got stuck here due to the lockdown. She couldn’t return to India as there were no flights. I sincerely thank Mr Ravi Puli and his team for arranging a charter flight via Qatar Airways for my sister to go home safely,” expresses Dinesh from Chicago.
“I am studying in NY and it was very difficult to come back to India during the lockdown as I was unable to get a seat on Air India. USISM helped me by not only providing a seat but also taking care of all the travel needs. My sincere gratitude to the team for their help,” says Niharika Reddy, a student in the US.
Passion for the social space
Ravi grew up in a village in Telangana’s Warangal district with 10th child amongst 13 siblings, and was first in his family’s generation to graduate and become a businessman.
“I had a very difficult time getting an education as the circumstances were tough. I had to travel about 15 kilometres through the reserved forest to catch a bus to school,” says Ravi. “My village still does not have transport connectivity and it is even hard to talk to my mother on the phone.”
Ravi moved to the US in 1997, and finds himself very fortunate to have had the opportunity.
When it comes to the social space, Ravi is on the board of the non-profit organisation TiE Global. He has also been a board member of the NGO Pratham Education Foundation for more than 10 years. Ravi mentors students who want to study and work in the US, and also helps entrepreneurs to kickstart their business.
Despite facing many difficulties while actualising the project, Ravi remains confident that he can do it again if the need arises.
“Right now, my son working on an idea to help people stay home and cope with the challenges of the pandemic. I will continue to help people in distress and guide them on how they can go back to their homes,” concludes Ravi.
Edited by Kanishk Singh
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