By Sajeev K Peter
KUWAIT: The first flight of Indians from Kuwait carrying 200 evacuees is scheduled to leave for Hyderabad on May 8 as part of the first phase of an evacuation plan chalked out by the Indian government in the wake of a global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the first phase, starting May 7 and spanning seven days, the Indian government will fly home around 12,800 ‘distressed’ citizens from many countries including Gulf states on 64 flights. The government has drawn a detailed plan in accordance with standard operating protocol (SOP) to evacuate non-resident Indians (NRIs) stranded abroad on compelling grounds, a press release issued by the Indian government said.
According to the detailed flight plan prepared by the government, the second flight from Kuwait will be on May 9 to Kochi and the third on May 10 to Chennai. On the sixth day of evacuations, passengers will be taken home to Ahmedabad, while on the seventh day, a special flight will leave Kuwait for Calicut. Around 200 passengers will be carried on each flight, taking home around 1,000 people in the first phase of evacuations.
The evacuation, probably one of the largest in recent history, will cover countries such as the US, the UK, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Philippines, in addition to all the GCC counties, in the first phase. The government will deploy special flights and naval ships to carry out the mammoth exercise of bringing home thousands of people from these countries and the lists of evacuees are being prepared on a priority basis in consultations with Indian high commissions and embassies overseas.
Pregnant women, senior citizens, people affected with serious diseases other than COVID-19, people whose visas have expired, those who went abroad on visit visas and got stuck and people who are facing various hardships will be given priority. It is also expected that people those who availed an amnesty offered by the Kuwait government will be able to go home now as the Indian government has decided to open its airspace to foreign carriers as part of the evacuation plan.
“Kuwait has offered free flights and air tickets for those who availed the amnesty. So, we expect that their repatriation will also take place simultaneously along with the evacuation. It is also our priority to evacuate those who are in deportation centers, numbering over 200. We want to give equal importance to deportees, serious medical cases and to those who were granted amnesty,” an Indian Embassy official said.
The Indian Embassy has opened an e-registration platform, where people can fill the form and register: http://indembkwt.com/eva/. Around 30,000 people have registered with the embassy as of yesterday. Although the government will arrange the means of air passage, the evacuee will have to bear the travel fare, creating consternation among Indian community members in Kuwait.
“Some of them (evacuees) are financially very weak. Many of them are seriously ill, while others have lost their jobs. It is not fair on the part of the Indian government to charge the travel fare from all of them. The government must consider some cases at least on a merit basis, said Ajithkumar, Director of Kerala Pravasi Welfare Board.
Varghese Puthukulangara, President of Overseas Indian Cultural Congress (OICC) Kuwait, called upon the India government and various state governments to share the burden of the airfare of the hapless evacuees. According to him, the welfare fund kept with the Indian embassy can be used for this purpose as well. “People like housemaids, taxi drivers, daily wage earners, etc are not in a position to buy their air tickets, paying more than KD 200. Such people need some humanitarian consideration,” he pointed out.
India has embarked on a “massive” operation involving naval ships and aircraft to bring back some of the hundreds of thousands of nationals stuck abroad due to coronavirus restrictions, the government said. India banned all incoming international flights in late March as it imposed one of the world’s strictest virus lockdowns, leaving vast numbers of workers and students stranded.
A defense spokesman told AFP yesterday that two ships were steaming towards the Maldives and another to the United Arab Emirates – home to a 3.3-million-strong Indian community, who make up around 30 percent of the Gulf state’s population. A government statement said the evacuations would begin on Thursday and that Indian embassies and high commissions were preparing lists of “distressed Indian citizens”.
Evacuees will have to pay for their passage the statement said, without elaborating, and spend 14 days in quarantine on arrival. “COVID test would be done after 14 days and further action would be taken according to health protocols,” it added. India, the world’s second-most populous nation with 1.3 billion people, yesterday reported 46,433 cases of the infectious disease and 1,568 deaths. It was the biggest single-day jump with 3,900 new infections and 195 deaths in the last 24 hours.
The consulate in Dubai said that it alone had almost 200,000 applications, appealing on Twitter for “patience and cooperation” as India undertakes the “massive task” of repatriation. The oil-rich Gulf is reliant on the cheap labor of millions of foreigners – mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka – many of whom live in squalid camps far from the region’s showy skyscrapers and malls. But coronavirus and the devastating economic impact of the pandemic has left many workers sick and others unemployed, unpaid and at the mercy of sometimes unscrupulous employers.
So far some 20,000 Indians in the US have signed up for the evacuations, The Times of India reported. But some Indians said they would not be able to pay for their evacuations and pleaded with the government for help. “I request government to take all of us at no charge during this crisis situation as we are all struggling here due to prolonged lockdown,” tourist Sadhana Srivastava tweeted from Dubai. “I’m homeless now after I lost my job in March, please take me to India or else I will be in a big trouble here in Dubai, please help me sir,” Saroj K Swain wrote on Twitter.
The UAE has been the most vocal among Gulf countries in demanding governments take workers back, with almost 23,000 having left as of April 20. But New Delhi had until now refused to cooperate, balking at the logistical and safety nightmare of repatriating and quarantining millions of returning citizens. India had earlier evacuated some 2,500 Indians from China, Japan, Iran and Italy before banning international and domestic travel.