As India enters the sixth week of its strict countrywide lockdown, the Modi government now faces immense pressure to ease out on its flight restrictions and bring back home citizens stranded overseas, especially students, those with medical emergencies, and migrant workers in the Gulf region. Since the announcement of the sudden lockdown, while the embassies and missions have been providing support including food, medicines and accommodation where possible, the situation has now increasingly become untenable for many, say sources, to stay put where they are.
And as the current phase of lockdown ends on 3 May, the repatriation exercise is expected to begin with a two-pronged approach: by resumption of some limited but regular flights on some heavy-user routes, and also evacuations through special flights.
One of the key focus areas will be to bring back around 87,000 Indian students stranded in some 37 countries. Of these, the majority students are in 12 countries including United States, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Spain, UK, Canada, and New Zealand.
How Many Special Flights Will Bring Back Stranded Indians?
“When the lockdown to battle the pandemic was announced suddenly, including suspension of flights, the worst hit were many students in European cities as universities closed down hostels, and landlords asked them to vacate their places. So Europe will see more evacuations,” said an official member of one of the few National Action Committees providing inputs for evacuation plans of Indian students.
According to sources, while resumption of any special flights with United States is unlikely till end of May, Indian authorities have successfully negotiated for resumption of limited commercial and special flights to UK, Canada and Dubai, likely by mid May.
These flights will facilitate overseas stranded students as well as businessmen and those with urgent medical needs to travel. In addition, sources say that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has also advised the MEA to strategically allow for some limited domestic flights with minimal activity across major airports, including Delhi, to facilitate further movement of these students.
Incidentally, it was because of difference of opinion between the Health and External Affairs Ministry officials that a large number of Indians were stranded in transit in airports across Europe including Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and London in March this year, with confusion prevailing over flight restrictions.
Over 10K Calls, Over 26K Emails – Mostly From Stranded Indians
Meanwhile, the MEA COVID-19 Emergency Cell headed by Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi has been responding to distress calls and grievances of stranded Indians, and reporting to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who is in charge of the evacuation plans and reports to Prime Minister Modi on the subject.
As of the morning of 25 April, the control room received more than 10,000 calls and 26,000 emails, many of them pertaining to stranded Indian nationals. In the past few weeks, through coordination between MEA, Health and Aviation Ministries and DGCA, permissions were cleared for some 60-70 air ambulances that brought back young and old to the country, who needed urgent medical attention.
But the decision to repatriate Indians was not taken with the primary concern of stretched resources, including the need to build sufficient quarantine centres and also deploy adequate staff in airports for regular duties – for the medical and thermal screening of passengers – and the additional deployment of resources towards inter and intra-state movement amid lockdown.
The aim was to address consular visa problems of stranded Indians with the help of host countries, and provide them relief and support through Indian missions and community networks. Some 27 countries have extended visas for Indians and foreigners stranded on their soil due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the situation has now become more worrisome in the Gulf region which has nine million plus Indian migrants.
Decision to Repatriate Over 2 Lakh Indians in Gulf
Sources have confirmed that the decision has now been taken to repatriate some two and a half lakh Indian migrants in the Gulf – especially the transit migrants in construction sectors in UAE and Saudi, whose short term contracts are over.
237 Indian organisations in the Gulf have written to chief ministers of states, the Labour Ministry, and other nodal agencies in the Centre to repatriate the Indian workers who are caught between dire living and health conditions to joblessness because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The dominant majority of these workers belong to states like Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana. “There is an ongoing discussion about the welfare of Indian workers. There are some reports where workers in the Gulf have been asked to return because projects have completed. This is a dynamic situation where discussions are ongoing,” said an official privy to discussions earlier.
While logistical constraints need to be factored in and a phased evacuation plan will be decided upon a meeting next week, it is also learnt that the numbers could be higher, since almost 850,000 migrants from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and four other states have now signed up seeking help to return.
‘Need of the Hour is to Find Nuanced Solutions’: Sachin Pilot
As per sources, the repatriation plan was also discussed in details at a meeting of all nodal ministries and coordinating agencies on Saturday, chaired by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba and including Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, all chief secretaries of states and union territories, and secretaries of home, labour and economic affairs ministries.
This is what Congress leader and Deputy CM, Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, had to say, pointing to the plight of migrants – both domestic and in the Gulf:
“It is important now that the government, while keeping lockdown in place, finds a way to allow migrant labourers, workers and stranded students to return home. The economically weakest need to be taken care of, else many more will die because of hunger and financial stress rather than due to the virus. The need of the hour is to find nuanced solutions.”Sachin Pilot, Deputy CM, Rajasthan to The Quint
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)