New Delhi: India will launch its biggest evacuation exercise, christened 'Vande Bharat Mission', in decades and deploy a raft of civilian aircraft and naval ships to bring back home thousands of Indians stranded in the Gulf and several other countries.
More than three lakh Indians in Gulf countries have registered for evacuation but the government will bring back people on a priority basis, like pregnant women, elderly, students and those having "compelling reasons" to return such as medical emergencies, expiry of visas and facing the prospect of deportation.
Sources said those holding Overseas Indian Cards (OCI) will not be brought back home as the operation is only for Indian citizens.
Official sources said more than 10,000 Indians in the Gulf region were found to have contracted the coronavirus while 84 of them have died.
The sources said all the laid-down guidelines, like screening of people at countries of origin as well as on arrival, will be strictly followed and that states have been told to arrange for mandatory quarantine of the returnees.
The immediate focus of the multi-agency operation will be to bring back Indians from the Gulf, countries in the neighbourhood as well as from the US, the UK and Singapore, said the source.
"Commenced preparations for Vande Bharat Mission. Planning underway for stranded Indian nationals to return home starting May 7. Urge them to keep in regular touch with their embassies," External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in a tweet. "Coordinating arrival arrangements with state governments. Confident that our collective efforts will make this a success."
Sixty-four flights will be operated from May 7 to May 13 to bring back 15,000 Indian nationals stranded abroad. Estimates say around 1.4 crore Indians are staying in different countries and a sizable number of them wants to return home. The government said passengers would be charged Rs 50,000 each for London-Delhi flight, Rs 1 lakh for flights from US and Rs 13,000 for flights from Dubai.
The government has not given any estimate about how many Indians it plans to evacuate out of the 1.4 crore.
The Indian Navy said two of its ships are on their way to the Maldives to evacuate Indians stranded in the island nation while the Indian Air Force (IAF) has kept ready about 30 transport aircraft, including C-17 Globemaster and C-130J Super Hercules, for any requirement.
As thousands of Indians are returning after losing their jobs, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) will share a detailed database with states and central ministries for the possible employment of skilled workers, sources said.
They said the MEA is coordinating with states and the Indian missions abroad for the smooth implementation of the mega operation, billed as the biggest in decades. It has deputed an additional secretary or joint secretary-rank official for each of the states to coordinate the evacuation process.
The sources said a flat rate of Rs 15,000 will be charged from each passenger as the cost of flight from those being evacuated from the Gulf.
They said the government will allow people to board the evacuation flights from India which will go to the select countries to bring back the stranded Indians. People will be allowed to board the flights on specific conditions like having long-term visas of the destination countries and provided the foreign nations agree to receive them.
Separately, the Indian Navy said it has launched Operation 'Samudra Setu' as part of the national effort to repatriate Indian citizens from overseas.
"Indian naval ships Jalashwa and Magar are presently en route the port of Mal, Republic of Maldives to commence evacuation operations from May 8 as part of phase-1 of the evacuation," it said. "The government has been closely monitoring the situation with respect to effect of COVID-19 pandemic on our citizens abroad. The Indian Navy has been directed to make suitable preparations for their evacuation by sea."
The Navy said a total of 1,000 persons are planned to be evacuated during the first trip.
(With inputs from PTI)