Coronavirus | Indians returning on Navy ships may have to pay up

Coronavirus | Indians returning on Navy ships may have to pay up

External Affairs Ministry will take a call.

Not just trains and flights, the government has decided that passengers who will be brought back by Indian naval ships will also be charged for the service. While the charges will be “reasonable” or nominal, sources said a final decision will be taken at a meeting of officials in the Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Home Affairs hinted at the possibility of a charge in its “Standard Operating Procedure” (SOP manual) for movement of Indian nationals stranded outside the country. According to the Annexure issued on May 5, “The cost of travel as specified by the Ministry of Civil Aviation/ Department of Military Affairs will be borne by such travellers”.

Ministry of Defence sources said they have not yet been informed of any charges to individuals who will travel by the ships that have already set sail for the UAE and the Maldives. But at least two officials involved in the planning process for the operations told The Hindu that there will be some charge.

“Yes, there will a charge [for passengers on the INS ships], as has been mentioned in the PIB press release,” an officials said. “But it will be a reasonable amount.” Another official said the “exact amount has not yet been decided,” but a decision is expected on Wednesday.

If the decision is confirmed by the MEA, this would be the first time such a charge will be levied for naval rescue operations that have in the past brought back thousands of Indians from warzones in Yemen (2015), Libya (2011), Lebanon (2006) and Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf war (1990).

‘Not evacuation effort’

“This is not an evacuation effort, because this is not a government-sponsored operation,” an MEA official said when asked about charging passengers for their return on Tuesday. “However, this is coordinated by the MEA and our missions worldwide,” the official clarified, adding that returning passengers would also be charged for “mandatory institutional quarantine” facilities and any hospitalisation costs.

The government announced on Tuesday that it would charge all flight passengers according to fixed slabs for tickets on the “non-scheduled, commercial” flights operated by Air India and other airlines. Passengers wishing to fly back from the Gulf and East Asian countries will be charged ₹15,000-20,000, those flying from the U.K. will pay ₹50,000 and from the U.S. will pay ₹1,00,000.

“ This is a commercial service. We will not be offering subsidised fares. As it is, Air India is surviving on a government subsidy of ₹500 crore to ₹600 crore per month and most private airlines are hand to mouth and are loss making,” said Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Puri when asked about the charges for repatriating Indians, many of whom have been stranded since March 22, when the government banned all incoming travel due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The naval operations for repatriation of Indians from the Maldives and UAE have already begun, with the INS Jalashwa and INS Magar headed to Maldives while INS Shardul and INS Airavat are heading to the UAE. Indian missions in Male and and Dubai have opened up booking counters and online registrations for the purpose. The ships will ply in addition to 64 airplanes in the week of May 7-13, and will accommodate 14,800 stranded Indians returning from 12 countries including the UAE.

The UAE is likely to see the largest repatriation effort thus far, with about 2,00,000 Indians registering to return from the Emirates. Among them are tourists, business travellers, and thousands of expatriate labour and professionals who have been laid off or completed their contracts.

The naval operation from the Maldives will see 1,000 Indians return in the first round, estimate officials, who said between 3,000-4,000 Indians working and travelling in various atolls have registered to return.

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