As India faces the Herculean task of extracting more than 18,000 students from war-torn Ukraine, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan told News18.com in an exclusive interview that close to 4,000 Indian students have been evacuated and brought back safely so far.
“We have been in constant touch with students in both eastern and western parts of Ukraine. There are around 18,000 students pursuing their education and another 2,000 Indians who are employed there. Our priority is to rescue and bring them back as soon as possible. It is also our biggest challenge,” he said.
“Of the 16,000 Indians who are still in Ukraine, nearly 2,000 have reached the borders of Poland and Romania. We will be bringing them to India in the next couple of days,” he added.
According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science website, Indians account for more than 25% of the country’s student population.
The Indian government finds itself better positioned to handle the mass evacuation after the success of the Vande Bharat Mission which brought close to 7 million back home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking on the numerous distress videos and calls from Indian students about lack of food, water and power in their bunkers, Muraleedharan said that they are monitoring the situation by the minute and ensuring that supplies reach those affected as soon as possible.
“I have personally spoken to several students in Kyiv. The situation is tense as there is no easy access. We are doing our best to keep them safe. The students have informed us that they have adequate supplies. Our evacuation process is in full swing from the western part of Kyiv and will ensure every Indian comes back safely,” he said.
Freezing Temperatures, Food Shortage and Fear
News18.com spoke to students in Kharkhiv who have been living in underground bunkers since the war broke. Located closest to the Russian border, they are terrified by the constant shelling.
Faisal, a fourth year student from Kharkhiv Medical University, originally hails from Thodupuzha, Kerala. He is among 250 students living in a single bunker located below their college premises in eastern Ukraine.
“There are five to six such bunkers with more than 200 students inside each of them. The latest circular by the Indian Embassy asks us to stay where we are and not try to head towards the borders. We understand that the Indian government is evacuating people from the western side. We are right in the middle of the shelling and war. Though we are safe for now in these bunkers, how long can we manage?” asked Faisal.
“This morning we saw some sunlight for the first time. But soon after we heard the siren, we had to rush back to the bunkers. There is limited food and water supply. Students with health issues like asthma are finding it difficult. Last night, it began snowing heavily and the temperature has dropped to below zero. There are no heaters in the bunkers and since it is underground, it gets really cold and we are unable sleep at night,” he told this reporter over a WhatsApp call from Kharkhiv.
Our Universities Refused to Let Us Go: Students
Students told News18.com that they were stranded in Ukraine because their universities refused to allow them to leave the country or conduct online classes. “We had offline classes till the day the first bomb was dropped. We pleaded and asked them to conduct online classes. They flatly refused. We are stuck in bunkers fearing for our lives only because they refused to let us go,” a student said on condition of anonymity.
Indian students prefer to study in Ukrainian universities as they find it economical. “We pay Rs 40 lakh for six years for our education and accommodation in Ukraine. Back in India, an MBBS course would cost us a minimum of Rs 80 lakh plus donation,” explained Faisal.
With ticket fares, which usually range between Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 priced as high as Rs 60,000 per traveller now, students were left with no option but to wait until the Indian authorities moved them to safer locations.
“We have been hearing shelling and as it gets closer, the vibrations also increase. We are really scared and hope to get to safety soon,” said Deepshikha, a first year MBBS student hailing from Kozhikode, Kerala.
Sailesh, who is pursing his fourth year MBBS, said he is in constant touch with his family back in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh. “We have got calls from the offices of Chief Minister Jagan Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu. They told us that they are trying their best to work out a plan to help students get transported towards the peaceful side of Ukraine. They have asked us not to panic until then,” he said.
Ukraine Returnees Can Find Jobs Under SWADES Scheme: Muraleedharan
Many Indians who have businesses in Ukraine now fear loss of work. Speaking to News18.com, Union minister Muraleedharan assured that those returning from Ukraine can find employment opportunities under PM Modi’s SWADES (Skilled Workers Arrival Database for Employment Support) scheme. SWADES is a skill-mapping exercise to provide employment opportunities to Indian citizens returning under the Vande Bharat Mission.
“There are many Indians in the food and textile business in Ukraine. I have settled here and my wife is Ukrainian. I have been meeting hundreds of people who want to go back to India. They have lost their homes and businesses. Our aim is to ensure their safe passage,” said Sojitra Hardik, who runs an Indian restaurant in Kyiv.