India will expand its mega mission to bring back stranded Indians from abroad by including countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Germany, Spain and Thailand from next week, official sources said on Friday.
They said stranded Indians in central Asia as well as in various European countries will be brought back home under the second phase of the "Vande Bharat Mission" beginning May 15.
A total of 64 flights carrying around 15,000 Indians from 12 countries are expected to land at 14 airports across India from May 7 to 15 as part of phase one of the mission, they said.
The operation, the biggest evacuation since the first Gulf War, will see Indians being brought back from the US and the UK, besides southeast Asia and the Gulf on passenger jets and naval ships.
The evacuations are not free. Those taking the special flights will be charged around Rs 50,000 from Europe and Rs 1 lakh from the US.
Sources said Indian Navy ship INS Jalashwa set sail on Friday afternoon from Male to Kochi with approximately 700 Indians on board.
The first round of evacuations would bring back around 2 lakh people by the middle of May and then by mid-June around 3.5-4 lakh will be flown back, the government has said.
If any traveller is found symptomatic upon arrival, they will be taken to hospital while others will be placed under a 14-day quarantine in a government facility, it added.
Distress has been mounting among the vast Indian diaspora unable to return home since the government cut off all travel and ordered people to stay indoors to prevent a surge in coronavirus infections in mid-March.
There have been numerous tales of hardship, both financial and emotional, from people desperate to see sick relatives, attend funerals or births, while others have simply lost their jobs and are running out of money stranded abroad.
Till now, it had resisted evacuations, given the logistical and safety nightmare of bringing back and quarantining returning citizens.
India has 56,342 cases of the novel coronavirus, rising by 3,390 over the previous day and showing no sign of abating, despite the lockdown which has battered the economy and left millions without work. At least 1,886 people have died.