By Iqbal Abhimanyu
New Delhi, May 5 (efe-epa).- India is set to evacuate by special flights nearly 15,000 citizens stuck abroad after the suspension of international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic in the first week of a massive repatriation exercise, the aviation minister announced on Tuesday.
The evacuation, set to begin on Thursday, comes as the target countries, spread over the Middle East, Asia as well as the United Kingdom and the United Sates, have completed at least one month under lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leading to a large number of foreigners getting stranded amid a global recession and layoffs.
“In the first week, 64 flights from 12 countries will bring about 15.000 people. This will have to ramped up as we go along,” Hardeep Singh Puri said in a televised press briefing.
The minister said they had initially planned to gradually evacuate 200,000 Indians but “many more people” had shown interest in returning. “I don’t know what the final figure will be.”
The specially arranged commercial flights include 10 services from the United Arab Emirates, 7 each from the UK, the US, Malaysia and Bangladesh, 5 each from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the Philippines, and 2 each from Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
The flights would take the passengers directly to their home states, with the largest number of flights – 15 – arriving in the southern state of Kerala, followed by 11 each in neighboring Tamil Nadu and national capital Delhi.
Puri added that the passengers would be charged for the flights, saying the bill would come up to around 50,000 rupees ($650) for a nine-hour flight between London and Mumbai, the financial hub of India.
All evacuees will have to follow necessary protective protocols inside the flight and will be medically screened and quarantined for 14 days after their arrival.
The minister said that regular commercial flights, both domestic and international, will remain suspended at least until May 17, as the nationwide lockdown had been extended until then.
On Monday, the Indian ministry of home affairs had announced that the government would “facilitate the return” of Indians stranded abroad “on compelling grounds.”
The ministry said in a press release that “only asymptomatic passengers would be allowed to travel,” and the evacuees would have to install the government’s Aarogya Setu app, a contact tracing application meant to track the travel history of coronavirus-positive people and suspected patients.
The government is also exploring the evacuation of people through the sea route, and media reports on Tuesday cited defense officials to report that the Indian navy had dispatched four ships, two each to the UAE and Maldives, as part of evacuation efforts.
The evacuation exercise could turn out to be one of the biggest in the world, as according to a 2019 United Nations report, Indians formed the biggest migrant population in the world with a diaspora of 17.5 million people, including hundreds of thousands of students in major western countries.
The largest chunk of Indian migrant workers is concentrated in the Middle East, where Indians are in high demand as unskilled workers.
The announcement comes a day after India eased some restrictions in lockdown measures, which have been in place since Mar. 25 and have been extended at least until May 17.
However, air, rail, and metro travels and inter-state movement of people by road as well as schools, hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, cinemas and places of worship will remain closed nationally. EFE-EPA