New Delhi ‘Vande Bharat Mission’, the endeavour to bring home Indians stuck abroad amid the coronavirus lockdown, was chalked out under the supervision of the PMO. The mission was set rolling on Thursday as two special aircraft brought back Indians from United Arab Emirates on the first day.
Ever since the lockdown was imposed in different countries in view of the coronavirus pandemic, Indians stuck abroad had been urging officials of the Indian embassies, high commissions and even their native states to make arrangements for their evacuation.
These Indians were facing issues like expiring visas, completion of work for which they had flown abroad, closure of hostels in which Indian students were studying, or even health and family problems.
Once the Indian missions abroad sounded Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, he had a meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who in turn brought the matter to the notice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A senior officer in the PMO said the Prime Minister gave the green light around a week ago to devise a strategy to bring back Indians stuck abroad.
Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Shringla then sought all the necessary details from various embassies and missions on Indians who wished to come back due to urgent matters.
Following the directive, a meeting took place between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah, Jaishankar, and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri. This was followed by a meeting of PM’s Principal Secretary and other senior PMO officers, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, the Cabinet Secretary and Secretaries of the Ministries concerned.
Sources said that Jaishankar then directed the Indian missions abroad to register Indians who wished to return for urgent matters and those who were capable of paying their travel expenses. However, it was also decided that in case someone was not able to pay the air fare, arrangements would be made for the same.
It was emphasised that passengers would have to pay for the services while the authorities were to ensure these. Indian missions were asked to make arrangements to ferry stuck Indians from different towns/cities to the airports from where the evacuation flights were to take off for India. These missions were also directed to make food arrangements for the evacuees.
Directives were also sent out that plans for evacuation would be made on priority for those areas where the number of stuck Indians was more.
The sources said that the External Affairs Minister and the Foreign Secretary then contacted their respective counterparts in the countries from where the Indians were to be evacuated and revealed the evacuation plan, seeking their cooperation for its smooth operation.
The Health Ministry came up with a screening protocol for the evacuees, wherein the crew of the aircraft were also asked to undergo screening for coronavirus to be permitted to fly.
Also, screening of Indian evacuees was made compulsory. It was made clear that they would be able to return only if they tested negative. Although suggestions were made to ask them to undergo tests for coronavirus, but the plan was shelved in view of the time and other constraints. They were to be screened only, apart from giving an undertaking to agree for 14-day quarantine once they returned to India and downloading of Aarogya Setu app.
Sources said that it was decided to press Indian Navy vessels to evacuate stuck Indians from the Maldives and Gulf countries. Since over 3 lakh Indian expatriates from the Gulf region were willing to return, ferrying them by aircraft was a big ask.
On the other hand, a naval vessel could easily accommodate 2,000 to 2,500 evacuees. It is pertinent to mention here that Indians settled in the Gulf are used to sea travel while Indian Navy too keeps patrolling the region.
On April 30, a meeting was held at the residence of Rajnath Singh, which was also attended by NSA Ajit Doval, Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat and the chiefs of the three armed forces.
A strategy was devised to use naval vessels for the evacuations, with focus on safety aspect in view of the coronavirus outbreaks on a US naval ship. A standard operating procedure for both naval crew and the passengers was chalked out.
A plan was devised on the probable use of 8 to 10 ships, though it was decided to initially send three vessels.
On the other hand, Jaishankar provided Puri with details of Indians to be evacuated by air. The Civil Aviation Minister then made arrangements of passenger planes for evacuation.
Fares were fixed at a moderate level, with a flat rate applicable to passengers holed up in different countries. The aircraft crew was trained in health protocols and directed to ensure seating of passengers as per the norms of social distancing etc.
It was decided to send wide-bodied aircraft and seat lesser number of passengers to ensure adequate distancing among the evacuees on aircraft.
The Home Ministry directed different state governments to make arrangements in government facilities or even hotels to quarantine passengers once they landed at different airports. The expenses for the quarantine was to be borne either by the evacuees or the state concerned. The states were also asked to make arrangements for ferrying evacuees from the airports to the quarantine centres.
The sources said that the Foreign Secretary briefed all the states about the travel plans and also provided them details of passengers who were to arrive in their native states so that they could plan accordingly.
Around 4 lakh people from Kerala live abroad. The state wanted that its expatriates returning to Kerala should be tested for coronavirus before they were allowed to board home-bound planes, but it was not possible. India had done so while evacuating Indians from Iran earlier on, but the number of evacuees in this case was small.
Now that the first phase of the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ is on, its next phase will depend on the success of the present efforts and the situation of coronavirus infections in the country in the coming days.