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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The biggest rescue mission: How Indian nationals stranded abroad are returning home amid COVID-19 pandemic

The global spread of the Coronavirus and the consecutive lockdowns across the world resulted in lakhs of Indians getting stranded abroad. And this might be the biggest rescue mission in the history of India as they bring back crores of Indian nationals stranded outside the country.

India is credited for launching massive exercises to repatriate their own nationals from other countries earlier. The three big evacuations were in the year 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait; then in 2011-12, during the Syria-Libya crisis; and finally in 2014-15, during the Iraq-Libya crisis. The 1991 evacuation mission won Air India the Guinness record for the maximum number of evacuation which was equal to 1.9 lakh. The 2014-15 evacuation was the first time ever in history that a Union minister, V K Singh, minister of state for external affairs then, camped on-site to oversee the rescue operations.

“They all had their challenges,” said Shashank, the former foreign secretary who was in charge of arranging documents for the evacuees during the Kuwait crisis. “But this time, the situation is totally different. It is an open-ended evacuation, from across the world, unlike the limited-point evacuations of the past. The evacuees aren’t necessarily returning to a safer place; the virus is everywhere. In that sense, people can exercise more choice on whether they want to return or not.”

As of January 1, 2020, the population of India was estimated to be 1,387,297,452 people. This is an increase of 1.26 per cent (17,248,911 people) compared to population of 1,370,048,541 in 2019. If the increase of the population is so huge every year and Indian nationals are spread across the world, it will be difficult for any rescue mission to take place. Looking at these staggering numbers, we can definitely not imagine how mindboggling it must be to bring back citizens from across the world amid the Coronavirus pandemic. Almost every other thing — elections, mid-day meals, even the stringent lockdown — that has to do with people in India is always on an unimaginable scale. Now, think of the sheer scale or extent of a rescue operation that is required to be incorporated to bring back Indian nationals from abroad. There are 1.4 crore Indian nationals staying outside, in every continent and almost every country, and a significant percentage of them now want to return home.

India's biggest rescue mission to bring back stranded nationals amid COVID
An Indian Navy ship (Photo: shutterstock.com/viper-zero)

Operation Samudra Setu

The Central Government had officially announced earlier this month that the Indian Navy has launched Operation Samudra Setu – meaning ‘Sea Bridge’, as a part of national effort to repatriate Indian nationals from abroad. Indian Naval Ships Jalashwa and Magar were en route to the port of Male, the Republic of Maldives to commence the evacuation operations from May 8, 2020, as a part of their Phase one. “The Government has been closely monitoring the situation with respect to the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on our citizens abroad. The Indian Navy has been directed to make suitable preparations for their evacuation by sea. The Indian Mission in the Republic of Maldives is preparing a list of Indian nationals to be evacuated by Naval ships and will facilitate their embarkation after the requisite medical screening,” the official statement on the Indian Navy website stated.

COVID-19- related social distancing norms and medical facilities were made available onboard and the ships were also effectively provisioned for the large-scale evacuation operation. The operation has been going on and is currently in its Phase two. It is being carried out in close coordination with Ministries of Defence, External Affairs, Home Affairs, Health and various other concerned agencies of the Central government along with the state governments.

On May 10, INS Jalashwa carrying 698 Indians stranded in the Maldives reached Kochi port in Kerala. The warship had left the Male port on May 8 with 698 passengers including 440 people from Kerala, 18 pregnant women and 14 children. Natives from several other states such as Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Assam and more were also there on the rescue ship.

INS Magar repatriated 202 Indians in the first phase. As a part of Phase two of the Operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa has already returned to Male to repatriate stranded Indians, the Indian Navy announced on May 15. “INS Jalashwa has returned to Male, the Maldives to begin Phase two of Operation Samudra Setu – repatriation of Indian nationals from foreign shores by sea,” the Indian Navy said in an official press release. INS Jalashwa with 700 Indians, including 100 women and children, will depart for Kochi on May 15 at night. “The Indian nationals who have been manifested for evacuation will be screened medically, allotted IDs and their baggage sanitised before boarding the ship,” the Navy said.

While the Navy has deployed two ships to bring back thousands of its nationals stranded overseas due to the COVID-19 lockdown, under the Vande Bharat Mission, Air India is operating 64 repatriation flights from May 7 to May 14.

Vande Bharat Mission

As part of Vande Bharat Mission, as many as 56 flights have brought back Indian nationals from 12 countries until now. Apart from Indians being repatriated from the Maldives by INS Jalashwa and INS Magar, a few others arrived through deportation flights from various countries. In the last few days, over 12 thousand Indian nationals have safely returned to their country. The second phase of Vande Bharat Mission was launched from 16 to 22 May. In this phase, the government has plans to bring back Indians nationals from 31 countries. A total of 149 flights including feeder flights will be deployed to complete this operation. About 18 countries have been covered under the second phase including “Armenia, Australia, Belarus, Canada, France, Georgia, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, Tajikistan, Thailand & Ukraine,” said the union Aviation minister. Till now, as per available digits, more than one lakh 88 thousand Indian nationals have registered to return back home on the government portal.

Union Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said, “In 1st phase of Vande Bharat we were to bring back 14,800 Indians on 64 flights. 8500 Indians have already returned till this morning. More flights are underway. In the 2nd phase, the numbers are being doubled. 30,000 more Indians will return from 31 countries on 149 flights.”

The Indian high commission in Male in the Maldives has said that Air India evacuation flights are being planned to be sent off to cities of New Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai for residents of other states except for Kerala. The high commission also had added that priority would be given to those people facing deportation by the Maldives government, any kind of medical emergency, pregnant women, elderly or senior citizens, stranded tourists and people who are immediately affected by family emergencies like deaths back home.

India might in the future look at this evacuation operation and feel like it was another massive and record-crashing achievement for the country. However, for now, it looks like they just have to concentrate on how to make it work, soon and effectively. Till then they can bask in the glory of their earlier achievements. Right now, the country is armed with masks, gloves and sanitizer to welcome back their fellow citizens.

“As India commences the historic #VandeBharatMission to bring back Indians from across the globe, I congratulate PM Narendra Modi for his compassion and exceptional leadership at this very crucial juncture,” Nadda said. He added, “I also welcome our sisters and brothers back to India, and wish them good health. I also appeal to them to extend full cooperation, follow the rules of personal distancing, hygiene and support local authorities in the fight against coronavirus.”

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