India on Thursday began a massive operation that may be the biggest peacetime airlifting of Indians from foreign countries. Flights IX452 and IX344 from Abu Dhabi and Dubai took off carrying a total of 363 passengers, including nine infants, to the southern state of Kerala.
Two flights to Chennai were scheduled to fly last evening after a few hours of delay. India suspended air travel in March when the country began a lockdown to fight COVID-19. In the coming days, nearly 15,000 people are expected to return on 64 special flights from 12 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.
Arguably, the most challenging task is repatriation of expats from the UAE where 200,000 have registered with the Indian missions. For the first two flights, preparing passenger manifests of 363 from such a large pool of applicants was not an easy task.
In the coming days, this exercise will become more challenging as many expats want to travel to destinations without a direct flight connectivity. Indian mission officials will have to work closely with their various government agencies in India to ensure the repatriated expats are well taken care of during the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days
The passengers included 35 pregnant women, one passenger travelling for kidney transplant and one brain tumour patient. For the repatriation, an operations room has been set by Indian officials with the help of community volunteers.
Since a lottery system was not possible, the officials have drawn several sub-categories and ensured expats from each of them were on board.
The Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi and Consulate General of India in Dubai deserve commendation for excellent planning, coordination and execution of this mammoth exercise which will continue for weeks.
In the coming days, this exercise will become more challenging as many expats want to travel to destinations without a direct flight connectivity. Indian mission officials will have to work closely with their various government agencies in India to ensure the repatriated expats are well taken care of during the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days.
Also, the missions must ensure that airfare of the special flights for all destinations remains affordable and airlines do not over charge.
Finally, this repatriation would not have been possible without excellent coordination between Indian missions and the UAE authorities.
The UAE officials also deserve praise for felicitating manpower and equipment for rapid-testing of passengers at the airports and for providing other logistical help.
This antibody testing will reduce the chances of infected people boarding special flights and help Indian health authorities who are screening the arriving expatriates.
Flights will remain suspended in India till at least May 18 when the lockdown is expected to end. After airport operations resume, the repatriation process is expected to gather momentum and the Indian government must ensure that airlines keep airfare of non-special flights to Gulf region at a reasonable level