Air India will operate 64 repatriation flights for a week from May 7 while the Navy deployed two ships as India rolled out a massive evacuation plan on Tuesday to bring back thousands of its nationals stranded abroad due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown.
From the Gulf countries to Malaysia and the UK to the US, the multi-agency operation christened 'Vande Bharat Mission' will see the state-owned airline operate the non-scheduled commercial flights till May 13 to ferry around 15,000 Indian nationals from 12 countries.
Those availing the repatriation flights will be charged, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told a virtual press conference in New Delhi. He said private Indian airlines may join the repatriation effort after May 13.
A passenger on a London-Delhi flight will be charged Rs 50,000 and on a Dhaka-Delhi flight Rs 12,000, he added.
Launching Operation Samudra Setu'( Sea Bridge), the Indian Navy despatched two ships to Maldives capital Male to commence the first phase of the evacuation operations from May 8.
A total of 1,000 people are planned to be evacuated in the first trip in naval ships INS Jalaswha' and INS Magar', a Navy release said. The evacuated people will disembark in Kochi, it added.
The first AI flight will be from Abu Dhabi in the UAE carrying around 200 passengers with the destination being Kochi in Kerala. As many as 10 flights are being operated on the first day from various destinations abroad.
The government also issued a standard operating protocol (SOP) for the return of the stranded Indians.
In an order, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said priority will be given to compelling cases in distress including migrant workers, labourers who have been laid off and those faced with expiry of short term visas.
Persons with medical emergency, pregnant women, elderly, those required to return to India due to death of family member, and students will also be given preference, the home ministry said.
According to union government sources, over 3 lakh people in the Gulf countries have registered for the evacuation.
The sources also said the Ministry of External Affairs(MEA) will provide a database to states and central ministries for employing skilled workers who are returning after losing jobs in the Gulf.
According to sources, over 10,000 Indians in the Gulf region were found to have contracted coronavirus while 84 of them have died.
The immediate focus of the multi-agency operation christened 'Vande Bharat Mission' will be to bring back Indians from the Gulf, countries in the neighbourhood as well as from the US, the UK and Singapore. According to estimates, around 1.4 crore Indians are staying in various parts of the world.
The largest-ever civilian evacuation was carried out by India in 1990 during the first Gulf war-- between Iraq and Kuwait--when almost 1.7 lakh Indian nationals were brought by air from Kuwait.
The 64 AI flights will be landing in 10 Indian states 15 in Kerala, 11 each in Tamil Nadu and Delhi, seven each in Maharashtra and Telangana, five in Gujarat, three each in Karnataka and Jammu and Kashmir and one flight each in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
The flights would be operated by Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express to repatriate Indians from 12 countries-the UAE, the UK, the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, Puri said
Out of this, 10 flights will be to the UAE, seven flights each to the US and the UK, five flights to Saudi Arabia, five flights to Singapore and two flights to Qatar to repatriate Indian nationals between May 7 and May 13, he added.
During this period, seven flights each will be operated to Malaysia and Bangladesh, five flights each to Kuwait and Philippines, two flights each to Oman and Bahrain.
The government has already evacuated about 2,500 stranded Indians from China, Japan, Iran and Italy in the last couple of months after the outbreak of coronavirus in those countries.
According to an official statement, only people showing no symptoms of COVID-19 will be allowed to travel and on reaching the destination they would also have to register for Arogya Setu' app, a digital contact tracing initiative.
After arrival in India, their medical examination will be conducted and they will be subsequently put under quarantine for 14 days, either in a hospital or in an institutional facility, also on payment basis, the statement said. COVID-19 test would be done after 14 days and further action would be taken according to health protocols, it said.
A Cochin International Airport Limited official said a three-phase de-infestation project was underway at the airport while mock drills for testing different systems have already been completed.
India has been under lockdown since March 25 and it will be in force till May 17 after two extensions in a bid curb the spread of the coronavirus. All commercial passenger flights have been suspended for this period.
The first two special flights that will operate from Thursday to evacuate Indians stranded in the UAE will begin with applicants from Kerala, who formed the majority of the expatriates who have registered to be repatriated from the Emirates, said Indian Ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor.
"The missions have prioritised the list of passengers and have given it to Air India. We would call and email each passenger to contact Air India to get their tickets issued. The first two flights on Thursday would be to Kerala, considering the high number of applicants from the state, Kapoor was quoted as saying by the Gulf News.
Over 200,000 expatriates in the UAE have registered so far to travel back to India.
"This news will come as a big relief to Indians who find themselves stranded in the UK and have been desperate to return," said Ruchi Ghanashyam, the outgoing Indian High Commissioner to the UK.
In Kochi, a defence ministry spokesperson earlier in the day said 'INS Jalashwa' deployed off Mumbai coast, along with 'INS Magar', were sent to Maldives on Monday night and that 'INS Shardul' was also despatched to Dubai.
Indian community leaders in the US welcomed the move of the Indian government.
This is for the first time in my memory that such an evacuation effort is being carried out by the Indian government for its citizens in the US, said Jaipur Foot USA Chairman Prem Bhandari, as he thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the efforts.
A batch of over 2,100 expatriates from Kerala in Gulf countries are expected to be airlifted to Kochi in the first phase and extensive preparations are underway at the international airport to receive them, an official said.
"Apart from the temperature guns to read the temperature of the passengers, the process of installing thermal scanners at the arrival area are on. Entire synthetic/textile wrapped furniture were replaced with temporary plastic chairs," the spokesman added.
Thousands of expatriates from the state wishing to return home have started registering on the non-resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department.
More than four lakh expatriates, mainly from the Gulf, are reported to have registered to return to Kerala.