Coronavirus: a million Indians abroad want to come home
by Biju Veticad

Repatriation is forcing all levels of government to apply different mechanisms to deal with the COVID-19 threat. The federal government has set strict conditions, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The Catholic Church is doing great work helping returnees under quarantine.

Delhi (AsiaNews) – The last plane with civilian passengers landed in India on 22 March before the country’s lockdown came into force. Now the government is implementing a plan to repatriate Indians stranded abroad.

Operation Vandhe Bharat is the largest repatriation of Indians since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait when the Indian government brought home 150.000 of its citizens over 59 days, between 13 August and 11 October 1990, in almost five hundred flights.

Starting 7 May, Vandhe Bharat could repatriate up to a million people with military aircrafts and Navy ships, with 15,000 people repatriated from about a dozen countries in the first week.

Given the huge number of people registering at Indian embassies around the world, the mission could take several weeks to complete. Increasingly, both professionals and workers are asking to be repatriate because they lost their job as a result of the economic impact of lockdowns.

The Home Ministry has already made public the procedures to prioritise the repatriation of those who have "valid reasons to return”. The people whose visas are about to expire, who risk expulsion, with family emergencies, medical problems including pregnancy and students who lost their accommodation will go first.

The first flights with returnees arrived in the state of southern India in Kerala on 7 May. A special Air India flight from Saudi Arabia arrived in Kozhikode, Kerala, with 152 people from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

Border officials reported that 84 of the passengers who returned from Riyadh were pregnant women who required the assistance of gynaecologists and nurses. A Navy ship with 700 people arrived yesterday from Male (Maldives) also with many pregnant women and children.

Repatriation is forcing every level of government to apply various mechanisms to deal with the COVID-19 threat. The federal government has laid down strict conditions, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

In Kerala, the local Health Department has alerted 207 hospitals across the state to be on stand-by, and made arrangements with 125 private hospitals in case they are needed at a later stage.

Up to 11,000 isolation beds and 1,700 intensive care beds are ready for returning Keralites. In addition, around 200,000 beds are ready for mandatory quarantine.

The federal government organised the first 64 flights which began taking off on 7 May bringing back some 15,000 Indians from a dozen countries over the following week.

The first phase includes the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, the United States, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Subsequently, the programme will be extended to other countries like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla are overseeing the coordination process with foreign governments, Indian missions and state governments.

The External Affairs Ministry will place all information about returnees on a digital platform that will be accessible to other ministries and state governments.

Data on those who lost their jobs will help state governments reintegrate these workers by including them in nation-wide or state government employment programmes or private sector jobs.

A large number of Indians working overseas perform humble jobs and have been left jobless by the pandemic. Oil-rich Gulf states rely on millions of cheap labourers, mainly from South Asia who tend to live in squalid conditions on the outskirts of cities.

The Catholic Church has been doing a great job helping returnees under quarantine. Several spiritual retreat centres in southern India have been provided for free.

By contrast, many states in northern India are struggling to organise mandatory quarantine for their returnees. Faced with major difficulties in organising free confinement, states like West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha are blocking movements within the country.

Travel on trains and private vehicles has started inside India. Due to tensions and protests by migrant workers across the country, India’s railways plan to resume passenger train travel tomorrow.

In various parts of the country However, thousands of people are not on any passenger list and receive no support from the authorities.

As a result, long queues of people on foot or bicycle can be seen on roads. Like Indian expats, they dream of going home, but far too often they are victims of road accidents.