New Delhi: India will deploy commercial jets, military transport planes and naval warships to bring back hundreds of thousands of citizens stranded across the world, in what's set to be the biggest-ever peacetime repatriation exercise in history.
The first phase of the drive is estimated to help about 1.8 million Indian citizens return home, according to the Indian Navy. That far outnumbers the 170,000 people India airlifted from Kuwait in 1990 - which inspired a Bollywood blockbuster - and bigger than the 150,000 the U.K. evacuated last year, following the collapse of tour operator Thomas Cook Group Plc.
The plan to evacuate citizens follows India's move to partially ease movement restrictions in many parts of the world's second-most populous nation after 40 days of strict stay-at-home orders. Millions of Indians were stuck around the world, from the Gulf to Europe and the U.S., after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the lockdown on March 25 to check the spread of the virus. The outbreak has already infected more than 46,000 in India, and killed almost 1,600.
At least four Indian Navy Ships, including two large tank landing vessels, sailed on Tuesday, three to the Gulf region and another one to the Maldives, which will bring back stranded Indians. The Indian Air Force has prepared about 30 aircraft, including Boeing Co.'s C-17 Globemaster and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s C-130J Super Hercules, for the mission. Air India Ltd., which has a fleet including Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner aircraft, will also operate special, non-scheduled commercial flights from London Heathrow starting May 7.
People wanting to come back must pay for their journey, the Indian government said in a statement Monday. All passengers will be screened, only asymptomatic passengers will be allowed on board, and they will be quarantined for 14 days before having to go through a virus test, the government said.
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Air India will operate 64 flights in the first week, while it's "entirely possible" that private airlines may also operate some flights in the future, civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters in an online briefing. Those coming from the U.S. will be charged more than $1,300 each while tickets from London will cost more than 500 pounds, Puri said. People landing in the country will also have to pay for their own quarantine.
In the UAE alone, almost 200,000 Indians have applied to come back, according to a statement tweeted by the Consulate General of India in Dubai.
Priority will be given to pregnant women, the elderly, people with medical emergencies and ones with bereavement or serious illness in their immediate family, apart from stranded tourists, according to a notice posted on the website of the Indian High Commission in London.
The US has repatriated about 78,000 of its citizens as of May 4, while European nations have evacuated more than 65,000.