Govt expands reach of Vande Bharat mission to bring back Indians stranded abroad
India will expand its massive repatriation programme for citizens stranded abroad due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) crisis to Russia, Central Asian states and European countries such as Germany and Spain next week, people familiar with developments said on Friday.
The Vande Bharat Mission, as the repatriation programme has been dubbed, has focused on neighbouring countries such as the Maldives and Bangladesh and West Asian states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have millions of expatriates, in the first phase during May 7-14.
“For the second week of the mission from May 15, we will expand the scope of repatriation to other places not covered so far, particularly Russia, Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and European states such as Germany, the Netherlands, France and Spain,” one of the people cited above said on condition of anonymity.
There will also be flights to Ukraine and Thailand, and the focus will be on countries with large numbers of Indian students, who accounted for more than a third of the nearly 68,000 requests for repatriation received by the external affairs ministry in New Delhi from people stranded abroad.
During the first week of the Vande Bharat exercise from May 7, a total of 64 flights from 12 countries are expected to land at 14 airports across India with some 15,000 people. The first two flights from the UAE arrived in Kerala on Thursday.
During the second week of the repatriation programme, there will be greater use of feeder flights both outside the country and within India, the people said. For instance, feeder flights could bring Indians stranded in Latin American countries to a point in the US for a return flight to India.
“The main issue is the commercial viability of the operations to ensure what Air India does is self-sustaining. The flights are being operated at cost and this is not a profit-making venture,” the person cited above said, explaining why the government opted to charge for ferrying stranded nationals back to India.
Noting that the government hadn’t charged for previous evacuation flights, the person added: “In the past, evacuations were from conflict zones and in emergency situations. Now, we are talking about a repatriation of people who want to return to India.
“They have the means to return. They are studying and working abroad, they will finance their own return to India at minimum cost.”
The people said the cost of tickets from West Asian states, for instance, were reasonable when compared to the rates of airlines from other countries that are currently operating. The government is also trying to increase the viability of Air India’s operations by allowing people on outbound flights provided they have long-term visas or residency permits and the destination countries are willing to receive them, the people said.
The external affairs ministry’s online platform, on which requests received by Indian missions from citizens wanting to return are regularly uploaded, has so far recorded a total of 67,833 requests. About 34% requests or about 22,500 were from students, 30% or nearly 16,000 from migrant workers, 9,250 from short-term visa holders whose visas had expired, more than 5,500 from people with medical emergencies or seeking treatment for terminal illnesses, more than 4,000 from stranded tourists, more than 3,000 from pregnant women and the elderly and more than 1,100 from people who wanted to return due to a death in the family.
These repatriation requests were from Kerala, which topped the list with more than 25,200, Tamil Nadu, with some 6,600, Maharashtra, with about 4,300, Uttar Pradesh, with more than 3,715, Rajasthan, with more than 3,300, Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Delhi, all with more than 2,000 requests each.
On Thursday, an Air India flight from Abu Dhabi to Kochi brought back 181 people, while another Air India flight from Dubai to Kozhikode returned with 182 passengers. On Friday, an Air India flight from Singapore to Delhi returned with 234 passengers, while another flight from Dhaka to Srinagar brought back 168 passengers.
There will be a total of 27 flights from West Asia during the first week of Vande Bharat, including 11 from the UAE, five each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and two each from Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.
During the same period, there will be seven flights from Bangladesh to bring back nationals to Srinagar, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. There will be another 14 flights from South-east Asia, including five each from Singapore and the Philippines and four from Malaysia.
There will also be seven flights in the first week from four airports in the US – New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, and seven more flights from London.