India’s Mass Foreign Evacuation Mission During the Pandemic

by Nazneen Rahaman

In March 2020, as countries started going into lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus, one could not have imagined the implications and repercussions of the pandemic due to the uncertainty surrounding it. When the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed that the virus was an air-borne disease, many countries immediately shut down air travel. India was one of the few countries that took such measures relatively early.

Despite travel restrictions, cases continued to rise tremendously due to which air travel was prohibited indefinitely. Samanth Subramanian said that “It is an axiom in aviation that air travel correlates to GDP. When people have more money, they fly more. But amid this historic downturn, no one was buying plane tickets.” This reflected the precarious situation the aviation industry found itself in due to the pandemic. On 24th March 2020, when India had recorded just over 500 cases, the country went into a nationwide lockdown with all shops, educational institutions, malls, and public buildings closed. No one was allowed to leave their homes except for essential items like food. Just a few days before this, flights had been cancelled and postponed indefinitely: 17th March onwards, certain private airlines foresaw the situation like IndiGo and started cancelling flights. Soon after it was announced that international and domestic flights would not be operating anymore to restrict the movement of people.  

Source: Aisle Labs  

The lockdown period, which was initially scheduled for 3 weeks, was constantly extended for months at a time due to the rising cases of coronavirus. At one point, government officials realized that life could not be put indefinitely on hold and therefore, resumed a limited number of flights, all of which were DCGA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) approved. It is necessary to note that travel was still strictly banned; these flights were just for those who were stranded, away from their family, or had permanent residence permits in another country. 

The Indian government implemented a mass international evacuation program, known as the ‘Vande Bharat Mission.’ It has set records with regards to bringing masses of people back to their home country and is said to be one of the most exemplary missions conducted during a crisis. Such evacuation missions were previously carried out by the Indian government in crises like during the Arab Spring and the 2013 North India floods. However, the execution during the time of the pandemic is worth following. 

After the province of Hubei, China went into lockdown in January 2020, India conducted its first evacuation flight on the 1st of February from Wuhan International Airport to rescue stranded students and working professionals. A few more evacuation flights were arranged from Wuhan on later dates, all of which were operated by Air India- the national carrier at the time. A flight was also arranged from Tokyo for those who were on a cruise at the time of the outbreak of coronavirus. As cases increased rapidly in Italy and Iran, flights were carried out from Milan and Tehran, all of which were either operated by Air India or the Indian Air Force. This mission continued till the end of March with most flights landing in Delhi, where passengers were quarantined on arrival. 

These flights were not reserved just for Indian citizens, but for anyone irrespective of ethnicity, nationality or whether they had a visa at the time of arrival. Those stranded in India before the announcement of the lockdown also had their visa expiry date extended indefinitely. 

While these flights were not considered to be a part of the Vande Bharat Mission until May 2020, the Indian government did not understand the extent to which it had to continue its evacuation efforts. Technically, the Vande Bharat Mission started in May, but the prior flights are now considered to be a part of the program. 

On 7th May 2020, the Indian government officially launched the Vande Bharat Mission which had 6 phases. Initially, only Air India was permitted to carry out these mass evacuations but following the demand, private airlines were also allowed to join the mission.  

All these flights had to be paid for by the passengers as this was not constituted to be an emergency. People travelling included those who were working in another country, students studying internationally, permanent residents of another country, people with visas of a minimum validity of one year, etc. Another thing to note is that once the mission had become official, it was restricted solely to Indian nationals. No exceptions were allowed and due to this many families were broken apart as there were quite a few cases wherein the parents were Indians, but their child was holding a foreign passport. Also, OCI holders (Overseas Citizens of India) were not eligible to fly via such evacuations flight. This caused quite an uproar as in most other aspects, OCI holders were considered as Indian citizens such as when it comes to economics, financial, educational aspects, etc. This rule was eventually waived, but it took quite some time and affected many families. 

Phase one was operational from 7th to 17th May 2020. All these flights arrived in India only and not vice-versa. They primarily focused on the Middle East countries. Phase two ran from 17th May till 10th June. Over 30,000 Indians were evacuated from about 40 countries. All the flights that were operational under these phases were under Air India only. Phase three ran from 10th June till 3rd July. Phase four ran from 3rd July till 1st August. This phase also allowed international airlines to land in India. About 1050 flights were operational under this phase. Phase five ran from 1st August till 31st August. The flights during this phase and the next one was primarily for students studying abroad. Regrettably, the Air India Express Flight 1344 on 7th August 2020, crashed and resulted in 21 casualties & over 100 injuries as a part of this phase. Phase six became operational on 1st September and officially lasted a month. 

Source: Civil Aviation, Government of India 

It is hard to determine exactly when the Vande Bharat Mission terminated as technically, it still has not. Currently, phase 14 is ongoing and it is from 1st October 2021 – 26th March 2022. However, post phase 6, flights became regularly scheduled (provided they were all DGCA approved). Also, the scheduled evacuation flights for those stranded were till phase 10 which was from 7th March 2021 – 29th March 2021. In summary, some consider the mission to be ongoing while some consider it to have completed its task by phase 6 or 10. 

Whilst the Indian airlines are estimated to report a loss of US$600 million (not including state-owned Air India) for the January–March quarter in 2020 alone, the government’s planned rescue package for the aviation industry was estimated to cost as much as US$1.6 billion. Whereas an analysis of the global air transport industry shows that airlines across the world are cumulatively faced with a loss of $84.3 billion in 2020. According to the Civil Aviation Minister, Puri, Air India earned a revenue of about INR 2556.6 crore via the Vande Bharat Mission from March till 31st August 2020, and out of all the passengers who flew during lockdowns, transported 36.36% of them. 

Due to the very apparent favor of Air India by the government, this is the only airline that did not report any losses after the first wave of COVID-19. The loss it faced (little in comparison to other national airlines) was soon recovered after being the symbol of the Vande Bharat Evacuation. This monopoly of a single air carrier combined with the atrociously over-priced airfares, which were fixed & not lowered irrespective of any personal problem or financial crunch one was facing, led to Air India emerging victorious after quite a few restrictions were lifted regarding air travel. 

Source: OECD 

Globally, early March 2020 saw 10% of all flights cancelled compared to 2019. As the pandemic progressed, 40–60% fewer flight movements were recorded in late March with international flights affected the most. By April 2020, over 80% of flight movements were restricted across all regions. Research shows that the world recovery of passenger demand to pre-COVID-19 levels is estimated to take 2.4 years, with the most optimistic estimate being 2 years, and the most pessimistic estimate 6 years. Large regional differences are also detected: the Asia-Pacific has the shortest estimated average recovery time of 2.2 years, followed by North America in 2.5 years, and Europe 2.7 years.  

There is absolutely no doubt about the importance of the Vande Bharat Mission, and how it was formed in a time of urgent need. It will go down in history and is one of the best mass evacuation plans to be organized during this pandemic. Despite facing certain setbacks and organizational issues, this is a prime example of exactly how India can rise to the occasion when needed. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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