Coronavirus: Inside the world’s largest repatriation drive to bring 6.7 million Indians home

Over 4,600 flights brought the equivalent of the entire population of Hong Kong back to India from nations all over the world

Passengers queue at the check-in counter ahead of their flight to India at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 8, 2021.  / AFP / JACK GUEZ
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When Dheeraj Guha left New Delhi to visit his daughter in Melbourne in February last year, he has no idea he would be force to extend his trip.

The 62-year-old chief production manager had booked his return flights for March 25 but two days before, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a sudden lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

All international borders were closed and international flights suspended.

Mr Guha, who had surgery to remove a carcinogenic tumour just months before travelling to Australia, desperately needed a health check-up back in India.

In absence of any flights, he felt stuck until the Modi government launched the world’s largest repatriation drive – dubbed ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ - in May.

"I felt relieved. We were stuck there for two months! We had to spend money on hotel accommodation. It was very much needed for people like us – old and with medical conditions.," Mr Guha told The National.

As many nations reflect on a year since coronavirus lockdowns began, India is still in the process of repatriating millions of its citizens stranded abroad when borders were closed around the world.

Women arrested for begging after losing jobs in pandemic repatriated

Women arrested for begging after losing jobs in pandemic repatriated

Thousands of flights across 136 countries have brought more than 6.76 million Indians home, the world’s largest such operation.

New Delhi swiftly launched the mission in March in response to thousands of Indians losing their livelihoods due to the pandemic.

Authorities established ‘air bubbles’ or ‘travel corridors’ for more than 4,600 flights repatriating the equivalent of the entire population of Hong Kong – including two million from the United Arab Emirates.

Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Civil Aviation Minister called the plan the “world’s largest mission of hope and happiness” on Monday.

The colossal mission was a complex exercise and required several rounds of discussions between ministries and airlines and other agencies, said Rajiv Jain, a spokesperson for India’s Civil Aviation Ministry.

"It is an interplay of several agencies including the Ministry of External affairs, Minister of Civil Aviation and air carriers like Air India and other participants and stakeholders. There was an interministerial committee on the operational level that got an estimate of people from these countries who would be travelling," Mr Jain told The National.

The majority of returnees came from the Middle East, with UAE having the highest number among the Gulf Cooperation Countries. Other arrivals ranged from the United Kingdom to Madagascar.

But the work is not done yet and it is not clear just how many Indian nationals still need to be repatriated, as international travel to and from India remains banned.

"No one knows the behaviour of the pandemic and hence this mission would continue for the people,” Mr Jain said.

Most of the returnees were distressed workers, professionals and students whose companies, businesses and institutions were shut due to the pandemic and thousands of tourists who were stuck across the world.

Passengers paid exorbitant prices for air tickets in the “air bubble” flights compared to regular ones and underwent self-sponsored mandatory quarantine, including five-star hotels.

Mr Guha says he paid $1790 for a flight ticket and $75 per day at a hotel in the capital city for a week where they were under institutional quarantine.

“Although I had to shell out three times on flight tickets, it was worth it because we had to be back home. My wife, who works with a bank, needed to go back to work,” Mr Guha said.

Half-a-million migrant workers from southern Kerala state, most of whom work in the Middle Eastern countries, returned home.

India has the largest diaspora population in the world with over 18 million people living outside the country, according to the United Nations. Gulf countries alone host 10 million Indians, among them the largest chunk of 3.5 million in the UAE.

The US has the second largest Indian diaspora at 2.7 million.

The massive immigrant population has helped India become the nation that receives the most foreign remittances across the world, as per the World Bank that reported that the South Asian giant received $83 billion in 2019, almost 2.7 percent of India’s Gross Domestic Product.

Gulf countries constitute roughly 62 per cent of India’s total remittances. Remittances to India from UAE stood at $14.89 billion in the first quarter of 2020.

Immigrants regularly send a large portion of their earnings to their families in India to meet financial demands that range from monthly household expenses to education, weddings and medical needs.

But as the pandemic continues to disrupt the global economy, many Indian immigrants have returned and many more are facing job losses.

World Bank estimates say remittances to the country will be down by a massive 23 per cent in 2021.