Two special flights from the UAE carrying a total of 354 Indian nationals left for Kerala on Thursday, as India began its biggest ever repatriation exercise to bring back its citizens stranded abroad amidst the international travel lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic.
The Air India Express flight IX452 carrying 177 passengers from Abu Dhabi to Kochi took off at 5.07 pm (local time). Few minutes later, the Dubai-Kozhikode flight took off at 5.46 pm (local time) as part of the repatriation exercise named Vande Bharat Mission.
“#VandeBharatMission begins! The first flight with 177 passengers takes off from Abu Dhabi to Kochi. #TeamIndia will continue with its tireless efforts to bring Indians home,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava tweeted. assengers started arriving at Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports as early as 9.30am on Thursday. Some of the passengers were carrying the Indian flags.
Indian Ambassador Pavan Kapoor was seen enquiring about the procedure from some of the passengers undergoing medical screening at the Abu Dhabi airport. “Great to see the #VandeBharatMission Abu Dhabi Kochi special flight IX452 taking off from the @AUH. Thanks all for cooperation and support for making it possible,” the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi tweeted.
“Kudos to all the passengers for waiting patiently for their turn for medical screening and many thanks to all the frontline health workers and airport staff for extending full support,” it said earlier.
Captain Rizvin Nasser, 26, an alumnus of the Sharjah Indian School, is co-pilot of flight IX452. Minutes after the departure of the first flight, Indias second repatriation flight from the UAE also took off. “Air India Express Flight left for Kozhikode with 177 passengers on boardwith last passenger Ajith was added to attend final rites of her mother after one passenger dropped out due to immigration issue.
A big satisfaction to serve all,” the Consulate General of India in Dubai tweeted. Ajith Pullanikotti, an IT professional, made it to the flight at the last minute to be able to attend the last rites of his mother who died two days ago. He was the only son. “I have been trying to go for weeks so that I could be by my mothers side. Unfortunately, she had to breathe her last without me being next to her. I really hope I can make it today, Ajith told Khaleej Times.
There are no suspected COVID-19 cases among the first batch of passengers being repatriated on Thursday. “All of them have cleared the tests, Consul General of India in Dubai Vipul was quoted as saying by the Gulf News.
He said the criteria of passengers selection included medical cases, loss of jobs, pregnant women and senior citizens. Those with complications and financial issues were also picked. The last two rows of seats in both the flights are not occupied.
In case of any health issues, passengers can use them. On Monday, the Indian government announced plans to begin a phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad from May 7. The government also said that Air India will operate 64 flights from May 7 to May 13 to bring back around 15,000 Indian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
Short-listing the first passengers from among a database of more than 200,000 applicants, who include around 6,500 pregnant women, has been a mammoth task which posed several challenges for the missions, Neeraj Agrawal, Consul, Press, Information and Culture at the Indian Consulate in Dubai told the Gulf News. India is conducting its biggest ever repatriation exercise named Vande Bharat Missionsans social distancing and COVID-19 tests to bring back stranded Indians from abroad.
The Indian missions in the UAE finalised the list of passengers, who were chosen based on the compelling reasons they submitted while registering their names. “Only passengers with confirmed tickets must proceed to the airport. They are required to reach the airport five hours prior to departure,” Agrawal said.
The Indian Consulate had appealed to passengers not to overcrowd the airport, maintain social distancing and follow all necessary precautions stipulated by the authorities.
The passengers included 18 pregnant women, five infants and 12 senior citizens and three people including identical twin brothers Jackson and Benson Andrews who have been stranded in Dubai Airport for 50 days. The tired and homesick 30-year-old brothers, Jackson and Benson Andrews, have been stranded inside the Dubai International Airports terminal 3 since March 19 while they were returning from Lisbon, Portugal.
They were among the 19 Indians who were stuck inside the airport for over a month. From the UAE, at least 200,000 Indians have registered on the web portal collecting data of persons wishing to return home. Air India crew members on board the repatriation flights were fully protected with protective gear, including Personal Protective Equipment, to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus.
The Indian expatriate community of approximately 3.42 million is reportedly the largest ethnic community in the UAE constituting roughly about 30 per cent of the countrys population, according to information available on the Indian Embassy website.
India imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country, grounding all international flights since mid-March. Under the repatriation plan, the government will be facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds in a phased manner.