Dubai: A section of the Indian expatriate community in the UAE has hit out at the Indian Government, saying it is shifting its responsibility of repatriating stranded Indians to community groups, as it has been approving more chartered flights than its own special flights under the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM).
The Indian government’s repatriation drive, dubbed to be the biggest ever, began on May 7 by using Air-India (AI) and Air India Express (AIE) flights. It later allowed chartered operations by private companies and community groups to speed up the repatriation of stranded Indians.
However, over the past few weeks, the government has been approving more chartered flights arranged by various community groups and companies than its own VBM flights, social workers and those chartering flights pointed out.
“The government is depending on us now,” said Dr Puthur Rahman, president of the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) UAE, which has chartered the highest number of flights to repatriate stranded Keralites.
“We had approached the government to charter flights because we understood that there are many limitations and it will take a lot of time for repatriation just by using AI and AIE flights,” he told Gulf News.
“All expat community orgnisations have written to the government to increase the number of VBM flights. Until it happens, it becomes our responsibility to support our community members.”
According to Dr Rahman’s estimate, around 25 flights per day would be required from the UAE to India if all Indians, who have registered for repatriation, are to be flown home in about three months.
“Instead of that, we are getting only three or four flights per day under Vande Bharat. That is why KMCC and other community groups have to charter more flights,” said Dr Rahman.
More than 450,000 stranded Indians have registered with the Indian Consulate in Dubai and the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi to be repatriated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
54,000 repatriated through chartered flights
According to the latest figures provided by the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, 83,000 Indians had been repatriated through AI and chartered flights of other airlines till June 25.
Of these, 54,000 have been flown home on chartered flights (45,000 approved by the consulate and 9,000 approved by the embassy) and 29,000 on VBM flights.
“For the past three weeks, chartered flights have been carrying Indian passengers from UAE to India and more than 200 chartered flights have been facilitated by the embassy and the consulate,” the Indian Consulate said on Wednesday.
Several dozens of chartered flights by community groups are scheduled to operate till the end of June as well.
Since it is the responsibility of companies to provide return air tickets to employees who have been laid off, many of them have also been chartering flights to repatriate Indian employees.
Though India’s Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri last week promised to significantly ramp up VBM flights from the UAE and other Gulf countries, only six more flights have been added to the schedule since then.
However, the government has approved several dozens of chartered flights being organised by community groups around the same time.
“It is the fundamental right of an Indian citizen to return home and it is the responsibility of the government to repatriate its citizens struggling overseas during such a pandemic. The government shouldn’t shirk its responsibility by passing on the onus to expat community groups,” said advocate Muhammad Sajith.
E.P. Johnson, president of the Indian Association Sharjah that is arranging chartered flights to various states in India, said the community group is inundated with desperate pleas from stranded Indians.
“Especially people from Maharashtra, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab, Delhi etc. They need more flights. We are trying to support them from our side. But the governments must be trying more. Or else they should open up commercial services.”
He said the Indian missions here are trying their best, but they have limitations. “I appreciate the efforts of the consulate and congratulate the consul general and his team for their efforts as I can see how they are supporting the repatriation mission. But they have limitations and state and central governments should work together to increase the number of flights.”
Lack of coordination, consensus
One of the main reasons for the sufferings of several stranded expats is the lack of coordination and consensus between the central government and various state governments, some expatriates said.
This is very evident in the case of certain states like Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, said Srikanth Chittarvu of Maa Gulf, an online portal for Telugu-speaking expatriates.
“There is no proper coordination between the centre and the states. And there are inter-state problems especially between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. They don’t want citizens of one state to catch a repatriation flight to the other.”
He said there is an urgent need to increase the number of flights for the Telugu-speaking expatriate community, especially for workers who have lost their jobs, or who are on unpaid leave and those overstaying their visas.
“People are begging to open up airports and international service if the governments cannot arrange repatriation services. There should be better coordination in arranging quarantine facilities also.”
Some expats said the government should not take credit for repatriation through chartered services.
“The chartered service is not a government evacuation service. So, the government should not take credit for what the community groups are doing,” said Afi Ahmed, owner of Smart Travel, who has facilitated around 35 chartered services by some community groups and companies.
He said the recent change in standard operating procedures (SOP) for chartered flights has added to the responsibility of those chartering flights and the airlines they opt for in coordinating with state governments for approvals.
Advocate Sajith said the delay in not starting passenger flight services was also questionable.
“If they can allow Air-India to operate VBM flights and private airlines to operate chartered flights, why can’t they simply allow all airlines to start regular commercial services?” he asked.
Dr Rahman added that the best scenario would be to start commercial passenger flights as soon as possible.
As reported by Gulf News on Thursday, several stranded Indians have demanded that India resumes international commercial operations if it cannot add more VBM flights.
Meanwhile, reports from India on Friday said international flights will remain suspended till July 15.