Around 30,000 Indians stranded abroad due to the coronavirus lockdown will be repatriated in the second phase of the "Vande Bharat" mission, Union Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said this afternoon.
In his tweet Mr Puri said 149 flights would be operated to 31 countries between May 16 and May 22, with the majority going to Australia (seven), Russia (six) and Canada (five). Armenia, Japan, Nigeria, Italy, Germany, France, Ireland and Nepal are among other countries from where Indians will be repatriated, according to the tweet by Mr Puri.
"In 1st phase of Vande Bharat we were to bring back 14,800 Indians on 64 flights. 8500 Indians have already returned till this morning. More flights are underway. In the 2nd phase the numbers are being doubled. 30,000 more Indians will return from 31 countries on 149 flights," Mr Puri said.
In 1st phase of Vande Bharat we were to bring back 14,800 Indians on 64 flights. 8500 Indians have already returned till this morning. More flights are underway.— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) May 13, 2020
In the 2nd phase the numbers are being doubled. 30,000 more Indians will return from 31 countries on 149 flights. pic.twitter.com/2ysniHHw04
As per Air India officials quoted in a report by news agency PTI, Thailand, Belarus, Bahrain and Bangladesh are also on the list.
"In the second phase, Air India and Air India Express will operate 149 flights to countries such as the US, the UAE, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Malaysia, Oman, Kazakhstan, Australia, Ukraine, Qatar and Indonesia," airline officials told PTI.
In the first phase - May 7 to May 14 - nearly 15,000 people were brought back on 64 flights sent to 12 countries, including the US and the UK, as well as Gulf countries and Malaysia and Singapore.
India has been under lockdown since March 25 to break the coronavirus chain of transmission. During this time all international (and domestic) flights have been banned, leaving tens of thousands of Indians stranded abroad and thousands of foreign nationals stuck in India.
Last week the government said it would operate paid flights - tickets range from Rs 12,000 (for flights from Bangladesh) to Rs 1 lakh (for flights from the United States). Three Navy warships were also pressed into service, with two bringing back nearly 1,000 from the Maldives at the cost of $40 per person.
Social distancing norms will be followed, the government said, adding that people would be screened before boarding and only asymptomatic passengers would be allowed.
The first repatriation flight landed in Kerala days after the announcement - carrying 363 Indians from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
However, despite screening at points of departure and arrival, at least five people were found to be COVID-19 positive on those two flights, triggering a strong reaction from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, whose state has "flattened the coronavirus curve".
"According to the central government, the people are being brought back without testing whether they have corona virus or not. This is very dangerous. There are 200 people in a flight. If one or two have the virus - this can be very dangerous for the country," he said.
"Indians have to be brought back but it is unfortunate that internationally followed protocols are not being followed. Have written to PM that those being brought back should be tested before the travel," he added.
India reported 3,525 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, government data showed this morning, taking the total number of cases to nearly 75,000, with 2,415 deaths linked to the virus.
With input from PTI