NEW DELHI - It was back in 1990 that India airlifted more than 110,000 of its nationals from Iraq and Kuwait in an effort that involved nearly 500 flights. The operation, held during the Gulf War, is recorded as the largest civilian evacuation in history. Nearly three decades on, India has mounted an even bigger effort to repatriate Indians amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 120,000 people from across the world have returned to India since the first week of May on repatriation flights operated by the Indian government under its Vande Bharat Mission, which was launched earlier this year to bring back stranded Indian citizens.
The on-going phase until mid-July involves more than 550 flights on the government-owned Air India as well as private airlines. According to an Air India document, they include four flights from Singapore into India. However, these efforts have so far been insufficient to meet the large demand that exists for flights both into as well as out of India. Regular commercial air passenger services to and from India have been suspended since March 22.
A June 18 report in The National, a daily published in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said more than 450,000 Indians in the UAE had registered to return to India. The same report quoted India's consul general in Dubai Vipul (who uses only his first name) as saying he expects between 85,000 and 90,000 individuals to be back in India by the end of June.
The UAE hosts around 3.3 million Indians, a majority of them migrant workers employed in sectors such as construction and hospitality.
Many community-based organisations and firms in the UAE are stepping in to help them return to India by paying for their tickets as well as chartering aircraft. These include the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, which has chartered several flights, offering subsidised as well as free tickets.
Dr Dhananjay Datar, the chairman and managing director of Al Adil Trading, which operates a chain of supermarkets in the UAE and other countries in the region, told The Straits Times on the phone from Dubai that he had pitched in by paying for more than 1,000 tickets for Indians to return home on evacuation flights. The cost of a ticket on these flights ranges from 750 dirhams (S$280) to 1,250 dirhams.
Most of these tickets were allotted to migrant workers, pregnant women and elderly people, among other vulnerable individuals. He added that he has also charted a Fly Dubai plane to fly around 190 passengers, most of them migrant workers, from Dubai to Mumbai on July 2.
"Some of them have not got their salary for four months and their landlords had removed them from their accommodation," Dr Datar said, adding that many of the beneficiaries come from poor farming families in Maharashtra.
India's evacuation flights have not been without controversy, though. This week, the United States Department of Transportation placed curbs on Air India's evacuation flights from the US and accused the airline of indulging in discriminatory practices and going beyond "true evacuations", including through selling tickets to those permitted to enter the US.
It also said Delta Air Lines had, on May 26, requested permission from the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) to operate repatriation flights similar to those provided by Air India, but has yet to secure approval.
The Indian government has said it is examining the American request as well as others from countries such as France and Germany to allow their airlines to carry out repatriation flights from India. Besides the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements, MoCA added that it is examining the prospect of bilateral travel bubbles connecting India to the US, France, Germany and the UK.
The cost of tickets on these flights has also been criticised. According to The News Minute, an Indian news portal, an Indian national who recently returned from Canada to India claimed in a viral Facebook post that he had to pay around S$7,605 for three tickets. A one-way ticket on a direct Air Canada flight between Toronto and New Delhi for November is now priced at around S$1,100.
"For someone doing general jobs, to save this much after all your expenses, it takes at least eight months. Vande Bharat Mission! I heaved a long sigh. I felt deeply jealous of the Pakistanis and Filipinos who went home for free," Siva (his real name was withheld) wrote in his post.