The Vande Bharat Mission was launched by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in May 2020 with the aim of evacuating Indian nationals stranded in various foreign countries, owing to restrictions on air travel amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The mission has become the largest sustained operation for the repatriation of stranded Indians. Besides, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has entered into “air transport bubble” arrangements with a few countries to allow limited commercial passenger services on a reciprocal basis till regular international flights remain suspended. In a ministry press conference, Hardeep Singh Puri, union minister, MoCA, talked about the progress of the Vande Bharat Mission and the new initiatives taken by the ministry to serve the country in the best possible manner in Covid-19 times. Excerpts…
When we started the Vande Bharat Mission, it was a modest initiative. As per data from the MEA, about 190,000 Indian citizens were in distress and stranded in other countries. The figure depicts those Indian citizens who had registered at our missions and consulates throughout the world. We therefore planned a mission to bring these distressed citizens back to the country. As of July 15, 2020, the total number of citizens repatriated stands at 687,467. Of this, the Air India Group has transported 215,495 citizens back to India, while Indian private carriers have brought back 12,258 citizens. Besides, many of the private carriers chose to fly private charters since the general passenger ticket prices were intentionally kept low under the Vande Bharat Mission in order to make the flights affordable, while the charters continued to operate at market prices. In all, Indian charters have brought back about 135,000 Indian citizens. Apart from this, foreign charters have transported 211,361 people back to India.
In 1990, when we carried out an operation to evacuate our citizens from Kuwait, about 448 flights were operated between August 13, 1990 and October 11, 1990, and about 170,000 people were brought back from Oman to Mumbai. As a result, Air India entered the Guinness Book of World Records. Today, we have already evacuated over 687,000 Indian citizens from different parts of the world and the figure keeps growing on a daily basis.
As far as the establishment of air bubbles between India and other destinations that have a fairly high traffic demand is concerned, we have already completed the negotiation for some of these air bubbles, while others are at advanced stages of implementation. All these arrangements depend, in the ultimate analysis, on the behaviour of the Covid-19 virus. If the virus was to suddenly atrophy or dissipate, and we have a normal operating environment, we would just open up the air bubbles to normal traffic.
We have already resumed domestic traffic since May 25, 2020; however, the traffic level still hovers at around 33 per cent, due to various restrictions that different state governments continue to impose in light of Covid-19. The case with other cities in the world to which we normally fly is similar. Until international civil aviation reclaims its pre-Covid traffic numbers, I think that the best solution lies in bilateral air bubbles. Flights under these air bubbles will carry as many people as possible, under the defined conditions, since many countries, including India, are still imposing entry restrictions. Till such restrictions are in place, the concept of air bubbles is the answer to move ahead.
Besides, going forward, drones are expected to occupy an important space in our civil aviation, not only in terms of our skies but also in the delivery of essential services. Drones are already being extensively used for operations against locusts.