How great will the Indian rescue be?

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The GCC governments have largely been very hospitable and treated their expats as family. But even they have a limit

By Bikram Vohra 

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Published: Thu 30 Apr 2020, 9:05 AM

Last updated: Thu 30 Apr 2020, 11:10 AM

There has been a kind of hush over the Indian inability or unreadiness to send relief planes to the GCC to repatriate those hit by the pandemic, stranded, grief-stricken, fiscally strapped, or simply desperately torn apart including minors. That hush melted into a roar of approval when ANI story broke in Khaleej Times underscoring plans for a massive airlift on Tuesday.
India holds the world record for such operations with the Iraq-Jordan airlift of 170, 000 refugees still the biggest ever.
So why, asked the Indians, were they being given a short shrift now. Kerala residents are the largest single segment and the spearhead of the sense of injury.
Within 24 hours of the clamour there was this news break of an air-sea armada being prepared for the Gulf and much anticipation generated.The ANI report did not say which GCC countries were destinations for the one way trip home but one way it will be because there is no return stub.
In a perfect world a canny politician like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have much earlier ordered the necessary evacuation procedures to bring the NRI (non-resident Indian) contingents home albeit on a selective priority basis. But it is not a perfect world and the options were scant. Even now the escalated projection of moving up to a million people is a major logistical challenge and is not going to just happen.
There are more reasons than excuses for the now rather arbitrary accusation of indifference.
The logistics are nightmarish. It is easy for state chief ministers to make lofty promises but aviation is not a state subject and it is the Centre that has to give the green signal. In 1990, India's fleet were operative. At this time they are not and have to be made airworthy again which is an expensive exercise and not just a fancy concept both for crew and aircraft. You have to pick up the threads from 6,400 flights a day to zero and then pull out mothballs.Which state exchequer will pay for this or for charters? And while India might engineer 500 flights over a period there are no 500 planes to be commandeered for this operation.
Again, these initial 200,000 applicants could rise exponentially and that is a crippling investment to mount a rescue even if done incrementally. We are looking at several weeks and billions of dollars in costs which no state government has committed itself to making a contribution. How does one categorise the texture of the need to get back to roots. Who will decide whose need is greater?
Add to this the toxic dimension that everyone and I mean everyone is a potential carrier and there is a 'whoa hold it' sentiment on the home front. India is still afraid of the other shoe dropping and the numbers of affected rising sharply without this added concern. This is especially so since the Indian medical establishment has concluded up to 30 per cent of people are asymptomatic when tested positive for Covid 19 and are still capable of transmitting the virus.
There are some who say the GCC enclave is not that far and India's naval fleet could churn the waters in 72 hours. Which Indian truly would place his armed forces at risk and believe it justified? Recall the USS Roosevelt and the 955 sailors affected on it. Imagine the Indian navy or even our transporters from the air force being so hit beside the fleet being off guard and loaded with civilians for over a just will not happen on that scale. Nor should it.
Then what about the logistics of a 14-day quarantine on arrival at an Indian port. Which state government has given NRIs a blueprint on this aspect? Forget this pleasant imagery of greeting families with garlands at the airport and going home for dinner.India has 30,000-plus cases and not flattening enough to bring another dimension into the scenario without necessary precautions.
There is also a residual but very real concern that the arrival of tens of thousands upsets dramatically the societal structure. Jobless, financially lost what will they do in states like Kerala, Bihar, Andhra, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh? It is a huge pressure on the system in a nation when unemployment is currently at 21 per cent.
So stand in line, NRI. That inherent suspicion of Indians living abroad is still a factor in the mental didn't ask us when you left the shores so stop whining now. It is not spite really just a bit of them and us that has marked the often tenuous love-loathe relationship between the home team and us as so-called outsiders.
There is, however, another angle that cannot be ignored. The GCC governments have largely been very hospitable and treated their expats as family. But even they have a limit. And the call not just on India but every nation with a representation to step up is understandably valid. Whether a foot drag on the co-operation will be taken into account for future agreements is a possibility that increases with every day.
So for now what India can do both for goodwill and because it is right thing to do is send in some compassionate flights for the most stricken starting with minors, the unwell, the elderly, the single parents, those stuck in transit, and the terminally ill who want to touch motherland soil before shuffling off the mortal coil. If cargo transporters and some selected vessels from merchant fleet for on deck voyages are selected that could get the most affected home soonest. But what India must keep in mind is there are eight million Indians in the Gulf and even 20 per cent coming home is an uphill and very costly task and not easy to accomplish.
But at least one can hope a start is being made. 

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