Around 60 lakh Indian citizens stuck in foreign countries were brought back to the country during the COVID-19 pandemic under the Vande Bharat Mission as on April 30, 2021, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told the Rajya Sabha on July 22.
The MEA provided details on how the Indians were repatriated. According to the Indian government, 18,79,968 Indians flew back to the country by Air India and Air India Express, and another 36,92,216 took chartered flights. There were 2,591 deportees, while 7,344 returned via Amnesty, and 4,007 people took other foreign carriers. Naval ships helped 3,987 Indians return home during the pandemic, and 5,02,151 repatriated via land border crossing, reported Moneycontrol.
When the situation within the country with the immigrant workers was grim, the Indian government handled the repatriation programme or the Vande Bharat Mission quite efficiently. The Government of India launched Vande Bharat Mission on May 6, 2020, to bring back stranded Indians from foreign destinations during the coronavirus pandemic. The mission has turned out to be one of the largest expatriation exercises carried out by a country.
Phase 10 Is Running
The first phase of the mission, which started on May 7, lasted for 11 days. It aimed at destinations with the highest number of stranded Indian citizens. The lengthiest phases were Phase VI and Phase VII, lasting for 61 days each, reported The Hindu. Presently, VBM is in its Phase 10, and it has scheduled domestic and international flights till October 11. The expatriation mission has already surpassed the large-scale airlift of 1,10,000 people at the onset of the Gulf War in 1990. About 373 international flights from the country and another 376 from abroad are facilitating the tenth phase of VBM.
According to the government data, VBM brought home 25,44,288 Indians from the United Arab Emirates, 1,97,730 from the United Kingdom (UK), 3,97,542 from the United States of America (USA), 23,350 from Sri Lanka, 7,603 from Thailand, 3,67,078 from Qatar, 4,79,103 from Saudi Arabia, 683 from Pakistan, 3,29,139 from Oman, 26,900 from Nepal, 1,22,161 from the Maldives, 96,900 from Canada, and 62,499 from Bangladesh.
As per data, the maximum number of Indians were repatriated to the following states: Kerala (14,10,275), Delhi (13,35,919), Maharashtra (5,89,222), Tamil Nadu (5,64,015), Uttar Pradesh (3,67,286), Karnataka (3,66,451), Telangana (3,65,249), Gujarat (1,39,937), and Punjab (1,16,222).
Criticized For High Airfares
However, several people have called out the mission for its steep fares. Paying the high airfares has been difficult for many who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic-induced lay-offs or experienced medical emergencies. In a written reply to the Rajya Sabha, Fromer Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said in September last year that offering free tickets on flights under Vande Bharat Mission would have further affected the finances of the Indian airlines, which are already in a "financially distressed condition" due to the pandemic.
Cargo Flights Used
According to The Hindu, Air India Express has used its B-737-800 fleet to lift agricultural products, mainly including fruits and vegetables, to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The airline also chartered some of the 24 'cargo only flights' to ship fruits and vegetables to the Indians living abroad during the pandemic. The aim was to keep the supply chain intact.
Other Countries Have Joined Hands
India has also made arrangements with several other countries, where their airlines can also enjoy benefits during the repatriation programmes. Among the 26 countries who are enjoying the reciprocal benefits, countries with whom such arrangements have been made are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Canada, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Nepal, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and a few others.