India’s king-sized effort to repatriate tens of thousands of Indians stranded abroad will start from the Gulf countries and will entail deployment of not just commercial planes but also the biggest warships and planes of the defence forces, people familiar with the development told Hindustan Times on Friday.
The government will start from the United Arab Emirates, home to 3.4 million Indians, and move next to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a government source said. Expats from Kerala would be the first ones to be brought since the state has created the infrastructure to accommodate about 2 lakh people at quarantine centres and hospitals.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla on Friday reviewed the work done so far to carry out the repatriation plan at the foreign ministry’s Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan office in central Delhi.
Once executed, officials said, this would be a record-setting exercise.
India’s evacuation of 1,70,000 civilians from Kuwait during the 1990 Gulf war is still considered to be the world’s largest evacuation exercise of civilians by air. India had then operated a little less than 500 flights, mostly by Air India, over two months. More than 25 years later, the feat also inspired the Akshay Kumar-starrer Bollywood flick ‘Airlift’.
A top government official told Hindustan Times that this time, over 1,90,000 people would be brought home in the first phase alone.
Blue collar workers would get the first priority to be flown home in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s directive. Among them, those who are facing health problems of any nature, have had a bereavement in the family or cite any other humanitarian ground would be taken in the early round of flights.
The government hasn’t decided yet when the first repatriation flight will take off from India.
“It will happen soon”, an official said, stressing that India or the world hadn’t seen anything of this kind in the past.
Apart from planes of commercial airlines including Air India, the official said the armed forces had also pooled in their resources.
The Indian Air Force would be deploying its largest transport planes including C-17 Globemaster III, which was also used to evacuate Indians from Yemen in 2015 , as well as the C-130J Hercules. The Indian Navy, on the other hand, is ready to send its largest ships including INS Jalashwa.
Officials said passengers and crew of the planes and warships would have to maintain social distancing norms. “This means that we will to make twice as many trips,” one official said.