The first of the two flights from the UAE carrying 177 Indian nationals left for Kerala on Thursday, as India began its biggest ever repatriation exercise to bring back its citizens stranded abroad amidst the international travel lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic.
A total of 354 Indian nationals, including 11 pregnant women and a pair of twins, will return home on Thursday in the two flights from the UAE to Kerala as part of the repatriation exercise named 'Vande Bharat Mission.'
The Air India Express flight IX452 took off from Abu Dhabi to Kochi, which will be followed by a Dubai-Kozhikode flight of the same airline.
Passengers started arriving at Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports as early as 9.30am on Thursday. Some of the passengers were carrying the Indian flags.
Indian Ambassador Pavan Kapoor was seen enquiring about the procedure from some of the passengers undergoing medical screening at the Abu Dhabi airport.
"Kudos to all the passengers for waiting patiently for their turn for medical screening and many thanks to all the frontline health workers and airport staff for extending full support," the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi tweeted.
There are no suspected Covid-19 cases among the first batch of passengers being repatriated on Thursday.
"All of them have cleared the tests, Consul General of India in Dubai Vipul was quoted as saying by the Gulf News.
He said the criteria of passengers' selection included medical cases, loss of jobs, pregnant women and senior citizens. Those with complications and financial issues were also picked.
On Monday, the Indian government announced plans to begin a phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad from May 7. The government also said that Air India will operate 64 flights from May 7 to May 13 to bring back around 15,000 Indian nationals stranded abroad amid the Covid-19-induced lockdown.
Short-listing the first passengers from among a database of more than 200,000 applicants, who include around 6,500 pregnant women, has been a mammoth task which posed several challenges for the missions, Neeraj Agrawal, Consul, Press, Information and Culture at the Indian Consulate in Dubai told the Gulf News.
India is conducting its biggest ever repatriation exercise named Vande Bharat Missionsans social distancing and Covid-19 tests to bring back stranded Indians from abroad.
The Indian missions in the UAE finalised the list of passengers, who were chosen based on the compelling reasons they submitted while registering their names.
"Only passengers with confirmed tickets must proceed to the airport. They are required to reach the airport five hours prior to departure," Agrawal said.
The Indian Consulate had appealed to passengers not to overcrowd the airport, maintain social distancing and follow all necessary precautions stipulated by the authorities
Air India crew members on board the repatriation flights will be fully protected with protective gear, including Personal Protective Equipment, to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus, Khaleej Times reported.
The Indian expatriate community of approximately 3.42 million is reportedly the largest ethnic community in the UAE constituting roughly about 30 per cent of the country's population, according to information available on the Indian Embassy website.
India imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country, grounding all international flights since mid-March. Under the repatriation plan, the government will be facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds in a phased manner.