New Delhi: The Indian military will begin the repatriation of stranded Indians Friday as a Navy ship sets sail from the Maldives with at least 750 people onboard.
Beginning Thursday, the Indian government set in motion a massive repatriation exercise, named the Vande Bharat Mission, to bring back citizens who found themselves stranded abroad amid travel suspensions announced around the world amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first two Air India flights deployed for the exercise took off from the UAE Thursday with over 300 passengers, with another 62 scheduled over the coming week.
The military is also involved in the exercise, with the Indian Navy deploying four ships as part of Operation Samudra Setu under the Vande Bharat Mission. The first of these, INS Jalashwa, will return with hundreds of passengers Friday, a Navy officer said. The ship had reached Male Thursday morning.
Each of the passengers aboard Jalashwa will be charged $40 (approx. Rs 3,000), a first for a military vessel.
The director general of the Armed Forces Medical Services told ThePrint that all precautions and steps had been taken to ensure the crew’s isolation and quarantine.
Two ships stationed off West Asia
The repatriation exercise is being conducted in keeping with a standard operating procedure (SOP) prepared by the central government.
Under the first phase of Operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa is set to bring back 750 Indians from Maldives, followed by another 250 repatriations by INS Magar.
Sources in the military said there are nearly 3,500 Indians stranded in the Maldives, a tourist paradise that lies to India’s southwest in the Indian Ocean. A call is yet to be taken on the repatriation of the remaining 2,500 Indians, the sources added.
Meanwhile, the sources said, two other Naval ships are waiting off West Asia, which hosts the largest share of Indian citizens abroad. Since the area is also being served by the Air India repatriation flights, the sources added, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has not decided which country they will need to enter to undertake the exercise.
Thousands of Indians — students, workers and tourists — are stranded in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Bahrain, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and the US, among others. Their repatriation follows a growing clamour from families seeking their return, a request the Indian government had refused to fulfil through April owing to Covid-19 transmission concerns.
In March, the government had stepped in to bring back Indians in Italy and China, but suspended the exercise once the nationwide lockdown kicked in 25 March.
Air India is conducting the bulk of the repatriations, and will operate 64 flights Thursday onwards to get back Indians from Europe, Singapore, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. The repatriations are all on a paid basis.
How are armed forces ensuring safety?
A top military officer told ThePrint that the armed forces have factored in all possible contingencies for the repatriation exercise.
“Policies for infection control on ships, disinfection of aircraft in conjunction with isolation and quarantine protocols for crew, are already in place,” Lt General Anup Banerji, the director general of the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS), said.
Meanwhile, as the Indians begin to be brought back, sources in the military clarified that the onus for the evacuees’ quarantine and isolation would be on states, since the facilities set up by the Army, the Navy and the Indian Air Force may not be able to accommodate them.
“They will be handed over to the state government, who will decide the next course of action. The military isolation facilities can accommodate a certain number of people, but the number of evacuees will be much more,” one of the sources said.
“So, the state government is likely to decide on the quarantining and other issues.”