“Commenced preparations for Vande Bharat Mission. Planning underway for stranded Indian nationals to return home starting 7th May. Urge them to keep in regular touch with their Embassies”, the tweet by Dr. S. Jaishankar, Foreign Minister of India on May 5, 2020 was the much awaited announcement of evacuation and repatriation mission to bring home stranded Indian diaspora amid the Covid 19 pandemic. According to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), On May 7, India will begin the mission with the operation of 64 flights for six days from 7th May to 13th May. Apart from the Vande Bharat Mission, the Indian Navy launched ‘Operation Samudra Setu’ (Sea Bridge) for the same purpose. Accordingly, the “Indian Naval Ships (INS) Jalashwa and the INS Magar are presently en route to the Maldives to commence evacuation operations from 08 May. The ‘duo’ operation is believed to be the biggest mission of such kind in the history of independent India. Once completed, ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ and ‘Operation Samudra Setu’ may turn out to be the largest evacuation operation ever since the airlift of between 1- 2 lakh people from Kuwait during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. While I am writing the article, the first flight has been departed from Abu Dhabi for Kochi and the second one is about to leave Dubai for Kozhikode.

Evacuation and Repatriation of Expatriates: The Indian Experience

Over the last couple of decades, most of the countries are giving high priority for the wellbeing and safety of their diaspora. It has become one of the core concerns of their foreign policies too. Overseas communities are now playing a significant role in the development and stability of a country, thanks to the remittances and political influences of the sound diaspora. This is very much true in the case of India as its diaspora is one of the largest, scattered almost all parts of the world, composed of diverse religious, linguistic and ethnic groups and more politically influential too than ever before. They have been a source of remittance, intellectual power, and acts as unofficial ambassadors of the mother country. Now India’s engagement with its diaspora is at a critical juncture as the world is struggling with Covid 19 pandemic. Altogether these contribute to the issues of diaspora one of the prominent subjects among the policy circle and thus insist the need for timely evacuation and repatriation operations. Anyhow, to achieve this goal, it requires documentation, coordination and high alert at civil, governmental and security levels.

History reveals that whenever the Indian Diaspora faced various kinds of threats in the host country; be it war, discriminatory policies or natural calamities; sometimes, the Indian government has intervened through mediation. At the same time, when the situation worsens, the government did not hesitate to conduct its major evacuation and repatriation operations. In fact, the governments in India began to change its diaspora policy mainly due to the large number and sound economic profile of Indian emigrants that started to change after the oil boom in the 1970s.

India has conducted thirty plus evacuation operations across Asia, Africa, and Europe over the past some decades, especially since the 1960s. It includes evacuation from Mozambique, Burma and Kenya in the 1960s; from Uganda in the early 1970s; from Iraq, Yemen and Kuwait in 1980s and 90s; from Egypt, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen after 2010. Anyhow the largest-ever civilian airlift was of the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Indian diaspora from the Persian Gulf in late 1990 due to the Gulf War. However, given the lack of emergency plan or formal doctrine, the success of these missions has mostly been due to the efforts and sacrifices of officials from India’s armed forces, diplomatic corps and flagship carriers (Xavier 2016: 1, 14-15).

‘Vande Bharat Mission’ and ‘Operation Samudra Setu’: Need of the Hour

The government of India had evacuated a few batches of its overseas citizens from China, Iran and Italy in the initial phase of the Covid 19 pandemic in February and in early March. Subsequently, the government was asking them to “stay put” where they are. But, the situation got worsened, and the government had intense pressure from media, political parties, diplomats, family members of stranded Indians abroad to bring them back at any cost. The health-related issues and poor economic condition of the overseas Indians in different parts of the world especially in the GCC region were taken up by many political leaders from Kerala like Pinarayi Vijayan, Oomen Chandey, P K Kunjalikutty, and various charity organisations like Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC).

Whether led by military or diplomatic authorities, evacuation and repatriation missions for expatriates during emergencies typically consist of four stages. Firstly; the assessment, secondly; planning, thirdly operational and finally the post-evacuation phase. (Xavier 2016: 6). The main focus of the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ will be facilitating the return of overseas Indians in a phased manner and to bring overseas Indians back from the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), from the UK, the US and Singapore. News reports say that over 10,000 Indians in the GCC region are estimated to have contracted Covid 19 while around 100 of them have died (The Week, 2020).

According to the official statements from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), 64 flights from May 7 to May 13 are to bring back around 15,000 Indian nationals through the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. Naval ships Jalashwa and Magar are en route to the port of Male to evacuate people from May 8. In this much-awaited mission the government of India will operate ten flights to the United Arab Emirates (UAE); seven flights each to the UK, the US, Malaysia and Bangladesh; five flights to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Kuwait and Philippines and Singapore; two flights each to Oman, Qatar and Bahrain (The Indian Express, 2020). Reports of The Indian Express on State-wise list of flight schedule reveals that the state of Kerala will get the maximum number with 15 flights from different countries which will be destined for four international airports in the state. Delhi and Tamil Nadu will have 11 each, seven for Telangana and Maharashtra each. The rest of the flights will arrive at different international airports in the states of Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

India Today reports on the evacuation and repatriation exercise by quoting the MEA that:

The people who will make the cut to board the flights and ships should have “compelling” reasons to return. MEA has prioritized and made lists keeping in mind students whose colleges or universities and schools shut down because of the situation; people who are employed and then either lost their jobs, finished their visas, completed their terms and had to come back; cases which are linked to health, elderly people, pregnant women, family emergencies, sympathetic cases. (Mohan 2020).

As per the directions from the government of India, those who wish to return home have to follow and meet certain conditions to get a seat in the scheduled flights. Khaleej Times explains:

Stranded Indians returning home are to bear the cost of travel as well as the price for staying in a government-arranged 14-day quarantine facility, the Government of India announced on Tuesday. Furthermore, they should test negative for the Covid-19 coronavirus. All stranded Indian citizens returning home have to undergo a mandatory 14-day institutional quarantine upon arrival in India, at their own cost, according to a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) document released by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The cost of travel, as specified by Civil Aviation Ministry will be borne by travellers. “At the time of boarding the flight, MoCA will ensure all travellers undergo thermal screening. Only asymptomatic travellers will be allowed to board,” said the Ministry of Home Afffairs. (Gokulan and Anjana 2020).

Conclusion

Even though the evacuation and repatriation missions are hardly a new exercise for the government of India, it has traditionally shown some hesitation or laziness in responding whenever its diaspora was in trouble. When most of the countries evacuated and repatriated their citizens without much delay amid the Covid 19 pandemic, India was in a mood of wait, watch and see. Planning the repatriation operation, documenting the profile of overseas Indians, coordinating different government offices and deploying its military and diplomatic assets abroad to protect its diaspora are difficult. However, at the same time, the government has to consider the poor condition of its citizens abroad, their contributions to the development of their motherland; moreover, it is the responsibility of their mother country to rescue them when they are in crisis. So, it would be better if the policymakers can respond and act on time before getting continuous calls from the opposition parties and media. Anyhow, those minor mistakes do not undermine one of the risky and most significant evacuations and repatriation mission the government of India has taken. However, as these kinds of operations are becoming more frequent and complicated, the country has to have new strategies which are more effective and easy to implement without delay for future operations.

References

Gokulan, Dhanusha and Anjana Sankar (2020): “Combating Coronavirus: Returning Indians to Pay for Air Travel, Quarantine Facilities”, Khaleej Times, 6 May, available at https://www.khaleejtimes.com/coronavirus-pandemic/combating-coronavirus-returning-indians-to-pay-for-air-travel-quarantine-facilities-

Mohan, Geetha (2020): “Vande Bharat Mission: India launches massive repatriation drive for Indian nationals”, India Today, 06 May

The Indian Express (2020): “India gears up for Vande Bharat, Samudra Setu missions: Everything you need to know”, 06 May, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/vande-bharat-samudra-setu-mission-evacuation-stranded-citizens-abroad-coronavirus-lockdown-6395181/

The Week (2020): “Before ‘Vande Bharat’: In 1990, India Conducted Largest ever Citizen Evacuation in Kuwait’, 06 May, available at   https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/05/06/before-vande-bharat-when-india-conducted-largest-ever-citizen-evacuation-in-war-torn-kuwait.html

Xavier, Constantino (2016): “India’s Expatriate Evacuation Operations: Bringing the Diaspora Home”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December, available at https://carnegieendowment.org/files/CP_299_Xavier_India_Diaspora_Final.pdf

Dr. Lirar Pulikkalakath, Chairman, Centre for Indian Diaspora Studies, Assistant Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala, India

lirarmgu@gmail.com


SIGN UP FOR COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWS LETTER


 

Comments are closed.