Evacuations by India related to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the central and state governments of India coordinated numerous international and domestic evacuations.



COVID-19 pandemic

SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in the city of Wuhan, Hubei, China in mid-December 2019, when a group of people developed a pneumonia without clear causes, and existing treatments were found to be ineffective. The coronavirus has similar characteristics to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), with the resulting disease being named COVID-19. Within a number of weeks, several thousand people in Hubei's provincial capital of Wuhan were infected, and the Chinese central government imposed strict containment measures, including a lockdown of Hubei itself. [1]

As the virus spread worldwide, more countries also instilled their own lockdowns and put travel restrictions into place. In response, many nations evacuated their citizens as well as other nationals to transport them home. India was no exception: to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, all visas were suspended from 13 March [2] and international flights were suspended nine days later from 22 March. [3] India had started a national lockdown on 25 March, which restricted the movement of people in the country. [4]


The Indian diaspora is the largest in the world, with the UN estimating their size at 17.5 million in 2019. [5] The Ministry of External Affairs has higher figures, with the number of Non-resident Indians or NRIs (Indian citizens who do not live in the country on a regular-enough basis to pay income tax) alone being over 13 million. [6] In addition, India also has a substantial population of internal migrant workers, with Reuters estimating that there are 100 million such workers. [7]

Previous evacuations

India has conducted several large-scale evacuations in modern times, particularly in the Middle East where there is a high concentration of Indians and several conflicts in recent history. [8] The 1990 airlift of Indians from Kuwait has been recognized as the world's largest civilian airlift, with over 110,000 people evacuated. [9] Domestically, Operation Rahat, which the Indian Air Force claimed was the biggest civilian helicopter evacuation ever, [10] airlifted over 19,600 people from Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh during the 2013 North India floods. [11]


January–April 2020

After the lockdown in Hubei, the government owned flag carrier Air India flew to Wuhan to evacuate Indian citizens, particularly students, stranded there. As cases spiked in Italy and Iran, the latter country of which some pilgrims had been stuck in, efforts were shifted to evacuate Indians from Milan (where Air India already flew before the pandemic) and Iranian cities. These flights were free for passengers. [12]

Departure dateEvacueesNationalities [lower-alpha 1] Departure airportArrival airportNotes
1 February 2020324 Flag of India.svg 324 Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg Wuhan Tianhe International Airport Indira Gandhi International Airport This was India's first evacuation flight. [13] There were three minors, 211 students and 110 working professionals, and the flight was operated by Air India. [14] [15]
2 February 2020330 Flag of India.svg 323
Flag of Maldives.svg 7
This was India's second flight. All passengers were quarantined in Delhi and Manesar, Haryana. [16]
27 February 2020111 Flag of India.svg 76
Flag of Bangladesh.svg 23
Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg 6
Flag of Myanmar.svg 2
Flag of Maldives.svg 2
Flag of South Africa.svg 1
Flag of the United States.svg 1
Flag of Madagascar.svg 1
This was the third evacuation flight sent by India to Wuhan. India also provided 15 tonnes of medical assistance comprising masks, gloves and other emergency medical equipment to China through the same Indian Air Force flight. [17] [18]
27 February 2020124 Flag of India.svg 119
Flag of Sri Lanka.svg 2
Flag of Nepal.svg 1
Flag of South Africa.svg 1
Flag of Peru.svg 1
Flag of Japan.svg Tokyo Narita International Airport This flight mostly had crew members of the Diamond Princess as passengers. [19]
10 March 202058 Flag of India.svg 58 Flag of Iran.svg Tehran (Airport unknown) Hindon Airport The Indian Air Force used a C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft to evacuate Indian pilgrims from Iran. [20]
11 March 202083 Flag of India.svg 74
Flag of Italy.svg 6
Flag of the United States.svg 3
Flag of Italy.svg Milan Malpensa Airport Indira Gandhi International AirportThe flight was operated by Air India. All the non-Indian citizens were of Indian origin. All evacuees were placed under quarantine for 14 days. [21]
15 March 2020218 Flag of India.svg 218Indira Gandhi International AirportAir India operated the flight. The evacuees brought to New Delhi will be shifted to Indo-Tibetan Border Police's camp in Chhawla area where they will be quarantined for 14 days. [22]
15 March 2020234 Flag of India.svg 234 Flag of Iran.svg Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport 131 students and 103 pilgrims, among others, were evacuated from Iran on a Mahan Air flight organized by the Indian Embassy. They were quarantined for 14 days in Indian Army's wellness centre facility in Jaisalmer. [23] [24]
16 March 202053 Flag of India.svg 53 Flag of Iran.svg Tehran and Shiraz

Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport

Jaisalmer Airport 52 students and 1 teacher were evacuated by Air India and were then quarantined at an Army Wellness Centre in Jaisalmer. [25]
22 March 2020263 Flag of India.svg 263 Flag of Italy.svg Rome Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport Indira Gandhi International AirportEvacuated by Air India from Rome, Italy, and then were quarantined at Indo-Tibetan Border Police's camp near Delhi. [26]
29 March 2020275 Flag of India.svg 275 Flag of Iran.svg Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport Jodhpur Airport After preliminary screening, they were quarantined at Army Wellness Centre Jodhpur. [27]

May 2020–present: Vande Bharat Mission

The Indian government initiated a massive evacuation program called "Vande Bharat Mission" on May 7, 2020. [28] This involved flights via Air India and its low-cost arm Air India Express. [29] In the first three phases of the mission, the government did not allow private airlines to participate, though they have been allowed to participate in the fourth phase onwards. The government continues to set the fare, determine the routes and decide the number of flights. [30]

Over 67,000 evacuation requests were registered by MEA by 8 May; [31] twenty days later, the number of registrations had increased to over 300,000. It was initially predicted that the total number of civilians evacuated could surpass the Kuwait airlift, with estimates ranging from 192,000 to 250,000. [32] [33] [8] On August 6, the MEA declared that almost 950,000 Indians were repatriated. [34]

As well as evacuating Indian nationals back to the country, certain flights will also evacuate anyone who wants to leave, provided they are a national, permanent resident, or have a visa valid for at least one year. [35] Unlike previous evacuations, passengers have to pay for their journey, with fares ranging from 15,000 (US$210) for the Gulf states to 100,000 (US$1,400) for the United States. [36]

Phase I

Schedule of Vande Bharat Mission-phase 1 Vande Bharat mission phase 1.jpg
Schedule of Vande Bharat Mission-phase 1

Phase one, which was conducted from 7–17 May, mostly targeted areas with high concentrations of Indians. It was predicted that this phase would feature a total of 64 flights, half of which were for the Gulf states, as well as two naval ships for Indians in the Maldives under the label "Samudra Setu" (Sea Bridge). [35] [37] [38] The MEA gave a higher number of 84 flights, which may have been due to counting domestic connections on the same plane as a separate flight. As of 15 May, All India Radio reported that 56 flights had been conducted. [39]

Departure dateInbound evacueesOutbound evacuees [lower-alpha 2] Foreign destinationIndian destinationNotes
7 May 2020177 Flag of the United Arab Emirates.svg Abu Dhabi International Airport Cochin International Airport First flight under the mission. [40] Three passengers on the flight to Kochi later tested positive for COVID-19. [41]
7 May 2020177 Flag of the United Arab Emirates.svg Dubai International Airport Calicut International Airport A substantial portion of passengers were pregnant women, stranded infants, and elderly persons taken on humanitarian grounds. [42] [40]
7–8 May 20202340 Flag of Singapore.svg Singapore Changi International Airport Indira Gandhi International AirportThe flight to Delhi, AI 381, was slightly delayed. Hotels throughout Delhi were prepared to quarantine the evacuees. [43]
12 May 2020177/179 Flag of the United Arab Emirates.svg Dubai International Airport Mangalore International Airport 20 passengers later tested positive for the virus. [44]

Phase II

This phase started on 17 May and ended on 10 June. [lower-alpha 3] [48] [49] The scope of evacuations was expanded to cover more European and Central Asian countries. [31] It is planned that over 30,000 Indian nationals will be brought back to India through 149 flights from 40 countries in this phase. [50] [51]

Departure dateInbound evacueesOutbound evacuees [lower-alpha 2] Foreign destinationIndian destinationNotes
28 May 2020230 (est.) Flag of Bangladesh.svg Bangladesh Tripura
Evacuation done over land. [52]

Phase III

This phase started on June 11 with scheduling over 300 flights from 50 countries. This phase is planned to include private airlines. [53] [54]

Phase IV

The fourth phase of Vande Bharat Mission will start on July 3. This phase will be mainly focused on Gulf Countries and Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. A total of 1050 flights will be scheduled. Out of the 1050 flights, 750 flights will be operated by Indian-based private airlines and rest of them will be operated by Air India Express. [55] [56] Air India will commence phase 4 on July 4. [57] Air India will operate additional flights from India to Europe and the United States from 22 July 2020 to 31 July 2020 under Vande Bharat Mission [58]

Phase V

The 5th phase began on 1 August 2020 until 31 August 2020, with over 700 flights to 53 countries planned. [59] [60] Air India operated more flights to the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the UAE and more. [61] [62] Out of these flights, was ill-fated Air India Express Flight 1344, which crashed and killed 21 aboard. [63]

Phase VI

The Phase 6 of Vande Bharat Mission has start on September 1 and India has operated a total of 1059 flights from Afghanistan, Bahrain, Cambodia, Canada, China , France, Germany, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Maldives, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, UAE, UK and USA.

Samudra Setu II : [64]

In support of the nation’s fight against Covid-19 and as part of operation 'Samudra Setu II’,  seven Indian Naval ships viz. Kolkata, KochiTalwar, Tabar, Trikand, Jalashwa and Airavat have been deployed for shipment of liquid medical oxygen-filled cryogenic containers and associated medical equipment from various countries.

INS Kolkata and INS Talwar, mission deployed in Persian Gulf, were the first batch of ships that were immediately diverted for the task and entered port of Manama, Bahrain on 30 April 2021.

INS Talwar, with 40 MT Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO) embarked, is headed back home.

INS Kolkata has proceeded to Doha, Qatar for embarking medical supplies and will subsequently head to Kuwait for embarking Liquid Oxygen tanks.

Similarly, on the Eastern seaboard, INS Airavat too has been diverted for the task, while INS Jalashwa, the LPD which played a key role during op Samudra Setu last year was pulled out of maintenance, readied and sailed out to augment the effort.

INS Airavat is scheduled to enter Singapore for embarking Liquid oxygen tanks and INS Jalashwa is standing by in the region to embark medical stores at short notice.

The second batch of ships comprising Kochi, Trikand and Tabar mission deployed in Arabian sea have also been diverted to join the national effort.


According to Indian Railways, over 1,000,000 migrant workers along with their families were taken home on Shramik Special (shramik is Hindi for "labour") trains. [65] For the most part, state governments are taking responsibility to arrange the travel of workers back home. [66] The state of Uttarakhand, a huge source of migrant workers, has had 130,000 applications from residents wishing to get back home. [67]


The fees levied to passengers have presented a significant barrier to Indians who want to evacuate but did not have enough money to go home. [68] For example, in both the Middle East [69] and domestically in India, [70] migrant workers have not been paid for several weeks, making it difficult for them to afford evacuation flights, trains, and buses. Passengers also raised complaints about inadequate payment and reservation infrastructure for the Vande Bharat mission, with worries about security and the 30-minute time limit to pay. [71]

The mission notably excluded the state of West Bengal. In response, a state minister accused the MEA of discrimination, while Piyush Goyal claimed that the state government had not confirmed quarantine arrangements and that 3,700 people had registered to return there. [72] A couple days later, an evacuation flight from Dhaka, Bangladesh to the state capital Kolkata was confirmed. [73]

The plight of domestic migrant workers in particular caught the attention of media across the world, as the lockdown meant that they could not return home easily after losing their jobs and images of workers walking to their native places became widespread. [74] [75] [76] Negative comparisons have been made between the situation of many domestic migrants and Indians abroad: Shekhar Gupta criticized the media and Narendra Modi for focusing on the Vande Bharat Mission and thus the more affluent at the expense of the working class, [77] and some politicians criticised the central government for not focusing on migrant workers enough. [78] [79]

After March, minors born abroad with OCI status or Indian visas were not allowed to travel with their Indian citizen parents back to India due to the earlier suspension of all visas for the country. [80] [81] In response, some MEA officials have proposed allowing some OCIs to be eligible for the flights as well. [82]


Air India Express Flight 1344

One of the flights under the mission, Air India Express Flight 1344 from Dubai International Airport to Calicut International Airport, skidded off the runway and crashed into a gorge, killing 21 out of the 190 people on board. [83]

Air India Flight AI-312 27-Aug Fiasco

On August 26, Indians including women and children were not allowed to board the Air India flight AI-312 to Incheon (South Korea) at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (New Delhi) without prior information. More than 180 Indian passengers bought ticket to fly from India to Korea to join their families, universities and jobs.

These passengers reached Delhi airport from different cities of India. But hours before the boarding they were informed that they are not allowed to board the flight due to some approval issues with South Korea. All passengers were forced to return to their home cities. [84]

See also


  1. If all passengers were Indian nationals, no other note is made.
  2. 1 2 The Indian media is focusing mostly on those returning to India, so outbound counts may go mostly unreported.
  3. This is based on the Air India schedule; other sources, including the MEA, have given different timeframes.

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