Covid-19: Getting Indian citizens back home
Speaking in 2014 to non-resident Indians (NRIs) in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi promised that “I will never let you down.” The following year, speaking in Dubai, he thanked Indian workers in the Gulf for their contribution to the motherland: “Even if it rains in India, you open your umbrellas to keep us safe.”
The coronavirus disease (Covid-19)-sparked crisis has now turned the tables, with NRIs and other Indian citizens abroad calling on Modi to fulfil his promises and bring them home to safety. Having benefitted at home from his international outreach to the diaspora, the PM will, by now, have realised that the diaspora’s committed support, including political and financial, comes with a price.
There are between 10 -20 million Indian citizens abroad. In the Gulf countries alone, 300,000 Indians have registered to return, and an estimated 10,000 have contracted the virus. This poses an unprecedented challenge, one that no other country has faced so far. So, how can their safe passage home be ensured with minimal operational costs and maximum political benefit? The Vande Bharat Mission is yet another attempt by Modi to transform an external crisis into a domestic opportunity.
Beginning on Thursday, and coordinated by the ministry of external affairs (MEA), the Vande Bharat Mission is likely to be the largest and most complex repatriation mission ever conducted by India, and possibly worldwide. There will be 64 flights in the first week, for 15,000 people. However, unlike other past operations, including from the Gulf in 1990 or Yemen in 2015, this time the government will only serve as a facilitator. Officials this week emphasised that this is “not an evacuation plan, as it is not government-sponsored” and only “coordinated by MEA and missions worldwide … on commercial basis.”
This is a subtle but important clarification that raises several questions. Citizens flying in from North America, for example, will be charged up to ~1 lakh for a one-way flight and have begun to voice their concerns. What will happen to those financially vulnerable, especially in the Gulf, who cannot afford to pay for their travel? Will they be abandoned, subject to the virus, chronic unemployment and xenophobic backlash? And what about the optics of people paying to be taken home by the Indian Navy or the Indian Air Force?
The pay-per-use policy is also driven by the need to reduce the financial burden on the government’s coffers, in particular Air India, which is still owed money for past operations. The hundreds, if not thousands, of repatriation flights over the next weeks and months will be a welcome injection of funds into the struggling carrier. And by charging citizens stuck abroad the actual flight cost, the government is also seeking to pre-empt criticism about giving special treatment to the diaspora even as domestic migrants face trying circumstances to move across the country.
Besides the commercial aspect of the Vande Bharat Mission, the government also faces five more challenges. First, it will have to make and explain difficult choices about prioritising different countries. The first week, for example, will see a flight from Dhaka but none from Kathmandu. The MEA’s objective logic of sequence will also come under continuous pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and different state governments, given different political agendas, including upcoming state elections.
Second, diplomatic missions will also struggle to flesh out the rather ambiguous “compelling” criteria to select who is eligible and prioritised for repatriation. This will rely on the discretion of local diplomats, but is bound to create tension: Foreign citizens are excluded from applying but what will happen, for example, to Indian parents with dependent infants who hold foreign passports?
Third, in a struggling Indian economy, the authorities will also have to ensure that returnees are able to reintegrate with minimum disruption. The MEA’s appointment of nodal officers with additional secretary rank to oversee coordination with each state government is welcome. The economy may lose a significant amount of critical remittances, around 2% of GDP, but the return of skilled migrants may also be leveraged as an opportunity for several sectors.
Fourth, with the Navy’s deployment to the Maldives, and the Air Force readying its aircraft, there will also be civil-military coordination challenges to ensure successful repatriation. In one of its first practical tests, the newly-created department of military affairs will play an important role in securing sea and air routes for safe passage.
Finally, it will be mostly the efforts of Indian diplomats on the ground, serving at the forefront in over 100 countries, which will determine the success of the mission. Every crisis requires all hands on deck, but with less than 1,000 officers, it should be a cause for concern that the Indian Foreign Service has little time left for more strategic tasks in a rapidly changing world order.
Even if it all ends well, with PM showing up to claim success and reap political benefits, the Covid-19 crisis will hopefully also make the point that India’s diaspora diplomacy requires more investment. Besides political rallies and cultural festivals, Modi will have to dedicate more resources to upgrading consular services, expanding diplomatic staff and, most important, better training to conduct future operations.