Coronavirus | Post-lockdown, Indians in Gulf will be the first to return

Coronavirus | Post-lockdown, Indians in Gulf will be the first to return

According to one estimate, 2,00,000 Indians will need to be facilitated to travel home

A week before the current phase of nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic ends, the government has begun preparations for the return of Indians stranded or needing to return from various countries, beginning with countries in the Gulf region.

On Saturday, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba held a meeting of all nodal ministries, including Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and all chief secretaries of states and Union territories. Also attending the meeting were Home Secretary, Ajay Kumar Bhalla, Secretary, Economic Affairs, and Secretary, Labour & Employment, on the issue of repatriating Indians after travel restrictions are lifted. Officials took stock of preparations in various States, most notably Kerala, for the return of an estimated 2,00,000 expatriates and other travellers, sources told The Hindu.

According to plans drawn up by the government, the first commercial flights from the Gulf region mainly the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain could be started after May 3, if the lockdown restrictions are not extended.

Indians stranded in the UK, other parts of Europe, and the United States will be considered after that.

Once the government’s plans are finalised, the MEA will contact diplomatic missions in Delhi and the DGCA will give clearance to specific airlines to begin advertising flights from the Gulf, sources said.

The government is making a separate assessment about places from where it will need to operate special flights, due to the large numbers of Indians needing to return, many of whom will be unable to afford tickets at present. Many of these countries have contacted Indian missions in the last few weeks, pressing the urgency of ensuring that Indians are allowed to return.

More than eight million Indians live and work in the Gulf region. In particular there are rising concerns about the numbers of migrant labour and other professionals that could lose jobs in the region, given plummeting oil prices and economic worries.

“It is true the numbers of Indians needing to return have increased in the last few weeks. Not only are there businessmen and travellers who were stuck when the travel restrictions began, there are many expatriate workers whose contracts have ended, and don’t have new jobs, and others who need to return to India for personal reasons,” a diplomat from one of the Gulf countries told The Hindu.

The Kerala government said on Saturday that it had expedited the process to make arrangements for the return of expatriates, with an estimated 10% of its population working abroad.

Speaking to journalists, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called for all those “aspiring to come back” to register their names on the website of the Department of Non-Resident Keralite Affairs (NORKA). Officials said pregnant women, senior citizens, ailing persons, Keralites in prison who have received amnesty, students, citizens who had gone on visit visas, and individuals whose visa period had expired would get precedence.

Officials involved in planning the repatriation operation said the government conducted a survey in early April, asking every mission to detail the approximate numbers of those who would need to return immediately, or at least as soon as the present ban on Indians returning to India is lifted.

Subsequently, the MEA’s point person for the coronavirus response, Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi made a presentation to the empowered committee on the logistical requirements. This week Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla wrote to State chief secretaries asking them to detail preparations made for handling the returning Indians, including arrangements for quarantine facilities and healthcare. The Cabinet Secretary reviewed the States’ responses at Saturday’s meeting, officials said.

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