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Vipul, the Consul-General of India in Dubai, at his office. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: He has been at the forefront of India’s largest repatriation mission from the UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having ensured the repatriation of tens of thousands of stranded Indians, Consul General of India in Dubai, Vipul, is all set to leave the emirate on a repatriation flight himself next week.

After a successful tenure of three years in Dubai, Vipul will be boarding a Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) flight to Delhi on July 7. He will be accompanied by his aged parents, wife and two small children. In this exclusive interview with Gulf News, Vipul says every Indian who is leaving the UAE is doing so with a heavy heart and with the hope of coming back soon.

“I am sure that Dubai and the UAE will bounce back as always and people will come back post-COVID,” said the diplomat who thanked the UAE authorities for their continued support to the Indian community.

Around 120,000 stranded Indians of the 450,000, who have registered for repatriation from the UAE, have been flown home since May 7 and majority of them went on flights coordinated by the consulate under Vipul's leadership.

Though he has handled cases of thousands of distressed Indians, Vipul said one of the unforgettable experiences he had in Dubai was also during the repatriation.

“I won’t forget that in one flight to Kochi, we accommodated 75 pregnant ladies."

Here is the full text of the interview:

GULF NEWS: Please tell us about your overall experience in Dubai, the milestone achievements and the major changes during your tenure here.

VIPUL: I think every Indian always has a great experience in Dubai and that’s the case with me too. Dubai is a wonderful place where everyone is welcomed, particularly Indians. The close, friendly relations between our countries make this posting cherished for all Indian diplomats. The love and warmth of Emiratis and the Indian community made this memorable for me and my family.

In terms of milestone achievements, I would place on top the two visits of Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to the UAE that happened during my tenure in Dubai. I will especially never forget his address to the community in Dubai Opera during his visit in February 2018. In the last three years, there has been continuous growth of our relationship and that was also reflected in numerous high-level visits from India to UAE. Our relationship would have been the showcase at Expo 2020, which now unfortunately stands postponed.

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Consul General of India in Dubai Vipul visited the embalming centre and offered condolences to the grieving families and friends of the Indian victims of the Dubai bus crash

Returning on a VBM flight

The biggest challenge in your tenure seems to be the handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us how tough it has been and what do you feel about leaving Dubai in the middle of this mission and about returning home on a VBM repatriation flight.

A. The last three months have been very challenging for our consulate. First, it was the spread of the infection and the help that we had to extend to people. I feel that the UAE authorities did a marvellous job in containing it and I wish to thank the leadership for their great care for everyone, especially for the Indian community which is so large here.

The repatriation mission came with its own set of challenges given the large number of people who wanted to go back. In the initial days of Vande Bharat Mission, we spent a lot of time in carefully selecting the most urgent cases. In this, we were helped a great deal by the community organisations.

I won’t forget that in one flight to Kochi we accommodated 75 pregnant ladies. Also, being at the forefront at airports, there was also the fear of catching the infection ourselves, which we had to deal with.

Later, as the number of chartered flights increased, we coordinated the enormous effort. On some days, we have had up to 40 flights and for these flights we coordinated with those who operate chartered fights, airlines, state governments in India and Foreign Ministry on both sides. Many of my colleagues have been working day and night to make this a success.

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United Arab Emirates, May 07 (ANI): Indian Consulate officials all are on the frontline to assist fellow Indian passengers who are being brought back from Dubai under Vande Bharat Mission during coronavirus lockdown, at Dubai airport in Dubai on Thursday. (ANI Photo) Image Credit: ANI

The issue of stranded seafarers

One of the challenges you faced in the initial months was the issue of stranded Indian seafarers. You had made tremendous changes in their situation. How have things improved after that?

A. Yes, when I joined as the Consul General in April 2017, there were a large number of Indian sailors in distress. At one point in May-June 2017, we were dealing with up to 200 such cases.

We went in-depth in understanding such cases and established an informal working mechanism with the FTA (Federal Transport Authority), which was extremely helpful in resolving the cases. Subsequently, changes were also made in the rules and regulations in both India and the UAE, which helped in bringing such cases down to a very small number.

I would also like to thank Gulf News for highlighting many such stories of distressed sailors that raised awareness about their plight.

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Indian Consul General Vipul and vice consul Vibha Kant Sharma talking to Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan and crew member Rajib Ali who were part of sailors group which got stranded on a vessel off the UAE coast. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

The Open House concept

You had reintroduced the Open House concept and formed the volunteers’ committees. How successful have these initiatives been?

Both the Open House and Volunteers’ Committees were very successful and enabled us to enhance our engagement with the Indian community in a systematic manner. Through the volunteers, we were able to reach out to many people.

In the Open House, we were able to resolve many cases or offer on-the-spot advise, utilising the experience of the consulate officials and community members at the same place.

Unfortunately, we were not able to carry forward the initiative due to local security regulations in the consulate zone, but the initiative certainly helped us and we are continuing with this work through WhatsApp groups.

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Indian consul general Vipul, Dr Azad Moopen, founder charirman & managing director Aster DM Healthcare and Eisa Al Zarouni, director of inspections, department of labour at a Wellness Camp for blue collar workers on World Health Day. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

On Modi’s visits to the UAE

You handled two visits of the Indian prime minister to the UAE. Tell us about the impact of these visits.

A. Yes, during my tenure we had two visits of Hon’ble Indian prime minister to the UAE and I think both the visits had something special. During the visit in February 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the World Government Summit where India was the Guest-of-Honour country. He also addressed the Indian community and laid the foundation for a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. In 2019, he was bestowed with the Order of Zayed medal, which was a recognition of how our ties have strengthened in the past five years. These visits, and also those from the UAE side earlier, have generated a lot of momentum in our comprehensive strategic relationship. Today, both India and the UAE continue to cooperate in a wide range of areas.

India-UAE: Before, during and after COVID

Tell us about India-UAE relations, the cooperation we had during the COVID-19 pandemic and what changes you see in the post-COVID era.

Our bilateral relations are historic and have always been excellent. However, I feel that in the past few years, we have really seen a great momentum in the expansion of our ties. Today, we are cooperating in several new areas. In many areas such as energy, we have consolidated our ties moving well beyond a buyer-seller relationship.

The UAE has emerged as a big partner for India in investments in infrastructure, which is one of the main priorities for India. A lot of work has also happened on how India can play a bigger role in ensuring food security for the UAE. Our human resources have been a source of strength for both the countries and we continue to work on how we can utilise their skills even better.

During the Covid-19 situation also we have continued our engagement with India sending doctors, nurses and medicines to the UAE and the UAE also sending medical supplies to India.

Unfortunately, due to the economic downturn in view of the COVID-19 crisis, a large number of Indians are now going back. In this repatriation effort also, the UAE authorities have extended us great help, such as conducting rapid antibody tests at the airports. Every Indian who is leaving is doing so with a heavy heart and with the hope of coming back soon. I am sure that Dubai and the UAE will bounce back as always and people will come back post the coronavirus pandemic.

On the Indian community in the UAE

What do you have to say about the Indian community here and what changes do you have to suggest to both the community and to the government?

A. The Indian community is a main source of strength in our bilateral relationship. Before COVID-19, the count stood at almost 3.5 million Indians in the UAE. Remarkably, this includes very successful and large businessmen, eminent professionals, many of whom are CEOs and CFOs of large corporates, and most importantly, our workers who play an important role in the construction and service industries.

The great thing about our community is that they are all law-abiding and hard working. The community is very connected, including connections with the consulate, and always comes to help each other. I have received full support from every Indian association and community organisation and want to thank all of them for their work.

I feel that both the government and Indian companies and organisations need to focus on how we can prepare our workers for the jobs of the future. The community will benefit overall if we can ensure this.

Remembering Sushma Swaraj

Tell us about your experience and memories of working with former Indian minister of External Affairs, late Sushma Swaraj, and how it prepared you for the big assignment in Dubai.

I have very fond memories of working with Sushma Swarajji. I worked with her for three years between 2014 and 2017 and it was a wonderful learning experience for me on both foreign policy side as well as community welfare side. She always had the interest of the common man in mind and that made her so popular on Twitter. In my own small way, I tried to maintain a helpful approach towards every member of the community and tried to resolve their issues in whatever manner we could. I hope that during my leadership of the consulate, we were able to make a difference.

On the next assignment

What is your next mission?

I am now going to join the Ministry of External Affairs back home and will be heading one of the Divisions there. I will spend a few years in Delhi and hopefully remain in touch with the UAE as well.