India set to bring home 250,000 stranded abroad; 64 flights deployed

However, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the Centre’s plan to bring back Indians stranded abroad without testing them for coronavirus was fraught with risks
In the biggest-ever evacuation exercise in modern history, India is set to bring back close to 250,000 nationals home from across the world. The Indians stranded abroad will have to pay anything from Rs 12,000 to Rs 1 lakh per ticket depending on their location. While the fare is Rs 50,000 to return from the UK, it is Rs 100,000 for a passenger coming from the US.

However, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the Centre’s plan to bring home Indians stranded abroad without testing them for coronavirus was fraught with risks.

“Many of them are coming without tests there. We can’t take any risk at this point. It would have been ideal if they undergo tests before taking flights,” he said in a letter to PM Modi.

India in February and March had evacuated citizens from Wuhan, Iran and Italy.

So far, India’s evacuation of 170,000 civilians from Kuwait during the 1990 Gulf war has been the world’s largest evacuation exercise of civilians by air. Air India then had operated around 500 flights over two months. More than 25 years later, the feat had inspired the production of ‘Airlift’, a Bollywood flick starring Akshay Kumar.

The government is also evaluating to send back non residential Indians (NRIs) stuck in India in the same flights. “ Rather than flying one leg empty, we are evaluating if the aircraft can carry people who are stranded here to their countries,” civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said.

According to a plan prepared by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and reviewed by Business Standard, the priority is the Gulf region, but state-owned airline Air India will mount 64 flights from London, Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, Chicago and some others starting May 7. The starting point is the Gulf as some 70 per cent of non-resident Indians live there.

Executives of private airlines have expressed disappointment over the government’s decision to involve only Air India while keeping them out. Revenue flights in the current condition would have helped these airlines badly hit by the extended lockdown and the overall turmoil in the aviation industry.

The evacuation exercise, which will include Indian Air Force and the Navy joining hands to bring back citizens, will run into several weeks.

Three naval ships--INS Jalashwa, INS Magar and INS Shardul--have been sent to evacuate Indians stranded in Maldives and UAE . The ships sent to evacuate Indians from the Maldives and UAE will return to Kochi.

The Indian missions abroad have already prepared a database of the citizens wanting to come back. Priority will be given to the workers who have lost their livelihood, have short-term visa and others like expecting mothers and senior citizens facing medical conditions, according to a statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

According to the plan, the passengers coming from Gulf will arrive in Kochi and Kozhikode, while those from the UK and the US will be brought back to Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi.

Passengers will undergo thermal screening before boarding. Once in India, they will be quarantined for 14 days in state-run facilities.

Ajay Singh, promoter of low-cost airline Spicejet said his airline was eager to participate in the evacuation process but had not been asked by the government.

“We are prepared with our aircraft, crew and network to support bringing back Indians from West Asia. We are waiting to hear from the government. We would be eager to play a role and contribute in such times,” William Boulter, IndiGo’s Chief Commercial Officer, said.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters on Tuesday that passengers will have to bear the travel cost. “It is a service being provided by the airline for people who are willingly coming back. This, by means and purpose, is not different from that of a commercial flight,” Puri said.

An executive of a private airline said had all airlines been allowed to participate, the competition would have brought down the fares. “There has been no transparency in the process. If there was a real intention to help, the flights to the Gulf nations should have been given to the lowest bidder. This kind of arbitrary pricing is detrimental for all except Air India. This is like a mini-bailout for them,” said an executive of a private airline.

There are other concerns too. For instance, PM Jabir, community welfare secretary of Indian Social Club in Oman, said there were many daily wage labourers in Oman who had lost their jobs. 

"Over 75,000 Indians in Oman have registered to return home. We are co-ordinating with the Indian Embassy in this effort and those with compelling need will be repatriated on a priority basis. 

This includes senior citizens, pregnant women and those who with medical conditions. Daily wage labourers who have lost income due to lockdown have registered for repatriation too but they are not being considered in first phase," he said.

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