After nearly two months, stranded Indians across the world will begin their journey home this week as aircraft and naval ships, in a government-coordinated plan, are to bring back about 15,000 nationals from 13 countries in the first week. The mammoth exercise, dubbed the “Vande Bharat” mission by the External Affairs Ministry, is expected to last for weeks, given the numbers of people who have registered with embassies in these countries. The stranded include business travellers and tourists who were unable to return in time; due to the pandemic, the last flights allowed to land with incoming passengers were on March 22. There are also students whose university hostels have shut down. Increasingly, those appealing to be allowed to return have included professionals and labourers who have lost jobs due to the economic impact of global lockdowns. With estimates of applicants ranging between 5,00,000 to 10,00,000, embassies and missions will have their task cut out prioritising lists of those who will return. According to the Standard Operating Procedures released by the Home Ministry, only those who have “compelling reasons to return” — people whose visas are expiring, who face deportation, with family emergencies, medical issues including pregnancy, and students who have lost their accommodation — will be allowed to return in the first phase, which is open to only Indian nationals at present. In addition, the government has also laid down stringent conditions which include “mandatory institutional quarantine” for 14 days. All those returning will also bear the costs for travel arrangements and accommodation.
Despite these, the returnees will no doubt be grateful to the government for its efforts, Indian diplomats who have helped keep them informed, organised food and shelter, and also to airline and naval crews who will carry out these operations despite the risks of infection. The efforts required by unsung diplomats and officials have been made all the more difficult by India’s stringent lockdown and the government’s decision not to allow its own nationals to return, even as about 60,000 foreign nationals were flown out during this period. As the government plans its exit from the lockdown, as well as its repatriation manoeuvres, it is necessary to consider putting in better systems so that it does not have to repeat the trauma of keeping Indian citizens stranded outside the country for extended periods away from their families. It is necessary that quarantine facilities are identified or makeshift centres built to deal with the large numbers of people who may need to return. In particular, the government needs to prepare for both a possible second wave of the novel coronavirus as well as a rapid increase in Indian expatriates needing to return given the drop in oil prices in West Asia and the downturn in global economies.