The Navy is also planning to dispatch 5 Landing Ship Tank of Shardul class and 2 of Magar class

Once the registration is completed then the Indian Missions/Posts will have to decide whom to evacuate first and their passports, medical certificates, exit certificates and other documentation will have to be readied

The Ministry of External Affairs, Indian missions/posts as well state machinery are preparing for the mass evacuation later next month. According to a top diplomat who wished to remain anonymous, “So far 300,000 Indians have registered at the Indian missions seeking evacuation. And the numbers will go up. And these are those people who have either lost their jobs, contracts have expired, or they are just keen to return to India fearing the spread of COVID-19. This is a logistical challenge and will not be over in a couple of flights. Several assets of the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, as well as the national carrier, will be put in service.”

What Are The Numbers Coming Back?

There is still no clarity, but it could be around a million who are keen to come back.

So far: UAE has 3 million Indians; Saudi Arabia has around 3.4 million and in countries like Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain there are 2 million each. These people are mostly from several states from South, including Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu.

Once the registration is completed then the Indian Missions/Posts will have to decide whom to evacuate first and their passports, medical certificates, exit certificates and other documentation will have to be readied. “These are important as several may want to return to the region once the situation improves and the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled,” explained the top diplomat.

In the month of Ramzan, most of the host countries in the region give “general amnesty’’ to the undocumented workers and through the Indian missions these people have returned to India in the past. “In this time of COVID-19, the local administration in different countries in the region as well as immigration authorities are helping the missions for enabling easy exit for these undocumented workers,” the diplomat said.

During the evacuation the COVID-19 protocols as suggested by the WHO and other agencies will be followed to maintain social distancing.

Assets Indian Navy And The Indian Air Force

According to sources, the operation will start off by sending in Indian Air Force Transport aircraft and of course the Indian Navy ships will sail off to evacuate almost a million Indians from the region.

Indian Navy’s largest amphibious platform INS Jalashwa based at the Eastern Naval Command headquarters in Visakhapatnam has the capacity to carry onboard fully equipped 1000 troops. However, if the social distancing has to be followed then it will not be able to carry more than 700-800 people.

A senior officer confirmed that several changes need to be made before the carrier sails off. “Right now the facilities on bard are for officers and sailors who are going to be replaced with the general public of men, women, children, old people, or some of those who might be on the family way. And because the COVID-19 social distancing protocol will have to be followed, the sleeping, dining areas, the bathroom facilities all need to be changed temporarily.”

The Navy is also planning to dispatch five Landing Ship Tank (LST) of the Shardul class and two of Magar class.

According to a senior officer, these have the capacity to carry in normal circumstances around 500 people. “However, with COVID-19 SOPs in place, only 300 people can be accommodated.”

Will All These LSTs Be Deployed In An Evacuation?

“No’’, said the senior officer. “Depending on the operational requirement and of course the availability around 3 -4 can be sent on this evacuation mission.”

Said a senior naval officer, “These assets are not enough. The government will have to put in other shipping vessels, cruisers, as well as merchant ships in case the number to be evacuated, goes up. ”

The Indian Air Force is likely to put in 12 C-130 Super Hercules which has the capacity to carry 70 people at one time and 11 C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft carrying around 160. The Russian IL-76 planes which can carry 180 people at one time will be dispatched too. According to sources, “These numbers will change keeping the social distancing in mind.”

Expert View

Terming it as an unprecedented challenge for Indian Navy, former spokesperson of the Indian Navy Capt DK Sharma (Retd) says, “COVID-19 the global pandemic has brought along with itself an unusual situation, where millions of people across the globe are losing/ or have lost their livelihood because of the forced lockdown which was a necessity to arrest the spread of the virus.”

“StratNewsGlobal has reported earlier this week that a huge evacuation plan is being worked out by the government and the MEA in consultation with Armed Forces, Min of Civil Aviation and min of Shipping on the modalities to repatriate Indians from the Gulf region,” says Sharma.

According to Sharma “India in the recent past has successfully evacuated of approx. 5500 personnel from war-torn Yemen (Op Rahat – Apr 2015) wherein the Indian Navy, Indian Air Force and the national carrier, Air India along with two passenger liners (ships) from Shipping Corporation of India was pressed into service. This out of the area contingency operation (OOAC) was of a different nature wherein safety of our expatriates had to be ensured from the fire-fight between Saudi Armed Forces and Houthi rebels. In the present case, the situation is totally different wherein the enemy is invisible in the form of a novel coronavirus.”

The Challenge Before The Government Will Be Manifold

“To start with where are the platforms to cater for such a massive air/sealift from across the Arabian Sea. Secondly, are all these expatriates COVID free? Thirdly, where are they going to be disembarked as they don’t have any means of livelihood, etc. The questions are endless and thus the challenge, which has no copybook solutions,” observes Sharma who was a witness to the Operation Rahat in 2015.

“Indians settled/ working on contracts across various countries are also facing the same and the next challenge staring in the face of the establishment is to repatriate them. This task is a herculean one and the gravity of working out the modalities itself must be unnerving,” he adds.