New Delhi: The Navy is in the advanced stages of preparing at least three of its ships to evacuate thousands of stranded Indians, particularly migrant labourers, from the Gulf countries.
INS Jalashwa, Navy’s second-biggest amphibious transport dock which can carry dozens of tanks, is among the three ships modified to accommodate as many passengers as possible, while following strict social distancing norms. Each ship will have a quarantine facility and medical teams to monitor the health of those onboard.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain are home to 70% Indians living abroad. Embassies in these six countries are in the process of putting together details of those who need to be evacuated in a phased manner. According to sources, the government of India has decided to give priority to migrant labourers whose work permits have either expired or are about to expire as they might be running out of resources after month-long lockdowns.
“With thousands of Indians in Middle East wanting to come back, this could be the biggest evacuation ever by India. Navy ships will have to make multiple trips as one ship would be able to accommodate about 500 people at a time. Social distancing norms are sacrosanct,” said a source close to developments.
“We don’t want a situation like in the US and French Navy where the virus spread like wildfire. We will have to ensure that everyone who comes on board is Covid-negative and is in a position to undertake sea journey,” he added.
Men will be in the upper decks and open spaces, while women, children and elderly will be given accommodation in the lower deck. “We are modifying the ships a bit to make space for people to stay at a safe distance from each other. Then extra food and medicines have to be stocked. After all, you don’t want to be sailing for a week without adequate arrangements,” a Navy officer told News18.
“All I can say is that we are ready. The full scope of the evacuation and the assets being used will become clear only after it’s cleared at the highest level in the government,” another Navy officer said. These large amphibious ships are being kept ready in Kochi, Vizag and Karwar.
Air Force and national carrier Air India are also working on Middle East evacuation plan. Put together, this is likely to become biggest evacuation exercise every by India, with one estimate projecting movement of over a lakh Indians from Middle East to India. Keeping these people in quarantine for two weeks post their return and ensuring safe movement into community is going to be another challenge. While states like Kerala have been making preparations for mass arrivals, Centre has asked all states to be prepared.
The Air Force is likely to use 11 C-17 Globemasters that can carry 100 passengers at a time and reach Middle East in less than four hours. Air India is likely to operate special flights as well.
Many Gulf countries have said they face a challenge with migrant workers. Some, including the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, have locked down areas with a large population of low-wage workers from South Asia.
Over eight million Indians live in the Gulf and only those with family emergencies and whose work permits have expired are likely to be evacuated in phase-I.
In an interview on Monday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the state is prepared to rehabilitate Gulf returnees. He had also written a letter to the Prime Minister's Office asking the Centre to expedite the process of evacuation.
Earlier in the month, based on a petition moved by the Kerala Muslim Cultural Society, the Kerala High Court had sought the Centre to file a report on evacuating the stranded Indians in the UAE.
Similarly, MK Raghavan, Kozhikode MP, has also approached the Supreme Court seeking its intervention in bringing back the jobless people, pregnant women and those on visiting visas due to cancellation of flights and struck in the Gulf nations.
Since the outbreak, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reported 17,522 and 10,349 positive coronavirus cases respectively. According to a report, the majority of Indians who tested positive for coronavirus infection abroad are located in the Gulf countries.