‘Special flights, hospital beds’: Centre preps to fly back Indians stranded abroad
The Centre on Friday started making preparations to run scores of special flights early next month to bring thousands of Indians stranded abroad due to the cancellation of international flights from 22 March.
For nearly a week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been holding discussions with senior ministers and officials on the modalities of bringing the stranded Indians back home, people familiar with the developments told Hindustan Times.
Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba took the first step as part of this exercise on Friday, telling state governments to earmark hospital beds and quarantine zones for the Indian nationals stuck abroad who will be brought back in special flights after the national lockdown ends. Gauba, the country’s senior-most bureaucrat, issued the instruction at his video conference with chief secretaries and police chiefs on Friday.
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To be sure, there has been no formal decision to lift the lockdown on May 3. But the government’s midnight decision allowing shops to open in residential areas signalled that the government was heading in this direction.
Irrespective of the decision taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi - he is interacting with the chief ministers on Monday to ascertain their views - officials say it is clear that many of the restrictions in place during the lockdown would be eased only gradually.
“This is the right time to start firming up the exercise to evacuate Indians abroad…. It will be a gigantic exercise,” a top government official said.
The External Affairs Ministry is starting the process to make an assessment of the people who want to return to India. Officials estimate that it won’t just be the Indians who have been stranded abroad who want to come back but others too.
For example, according to one estimate in the government, Kerala alone expects 1,00,000 expats to come back, for a visit to meet their family if not for a longer duration, when the flights start operating.
The other states that expect a huge inflow of citizens abroad are Delhi, Maharashtra Punjab, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.
A separate control room is being set up within MEA for the same purpose.
When the first few cases of the coronavirus disease started getting reported in the country in February, many state governments weren’t prepared and had indicated doubts about their ability to have the infrastructure in place to accommodate their citizens abroad. There was hardly any medical or quarantine facility ready for them.
That was one reason why the government had roped in the army and the paramilitary forces to accommodate the 600-plus Indians flown back from China’s Wuhan.
At his meeting with the top civil servants of the states, Gauba told them to go into an overdrive to create the facilities necessary for the Indians coming back after May 3. He also indicated the basic ground rules how the mammoth exercise would be carried out.
The state governments have been told that the Indian citizens evacuated from abroad will be brought to the international airport nearest to their state so that the requirement for internal travel is minimised. The states have also been told that arriving passengers would be straightaway taken to the quarantine centres where they will have to spend a minimum of 14 days.
Since March 22 - when the ban on international commercial flights was imposed - stranded Indians have been mounting pressure on the government to be allowed back into the country. It is for this reason that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has been constantly in touch with his Gulf and Saudi Arabia counterparts to ask them to take care of the Indians stranded there and reassure them that they would be evacuated as soon as possible. These countries are home to over 9 million Indian diaspora in the region. With the Gulf region more than accommodative to Indian requests, the government had also put medical supplies and assistance on highest priority to these nations.