How Vande Bharat Mission became key to achieve Atma Nirbhar Bharat

67.6 lakh people have already been facilitated under the mission, which has been the world's largest repatriation exercise

How Vande Bharat Mission became key to achieve Atma Nirbhar Bharat
An Air India flight from Tokyo to Delhi under VBM ready for takeoff. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndianEmbTokyo

India's historic Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), which was launched in May last year to repatriate Indians stranded abroad in the midst of a raging Covid-19 pandemic, continues to move from strength to strength, and according to Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, it has been one of the pillars of the Atma Nirbhar Bharat initiative. 

Puri pointed out that 67.6 lakh people have already been facilitated under the mission, which has been the world's largest repatriation exercise.  

"It is not just a mission that brought back stranded and distressed citizens from around the world, but Vande Bharat has been a mission of hope and happiness; of letting people know that they will not be left behind even in the most testing times," Puri tweeted. 

The civil aviation minister added that the way India had handled such a gigantic mission was in itself "a huge learning experience for us and the world". He observed that the VBM was a "significant bulwark in a journey towards being Atma Nirbhar Bharat".  

One would remember that in May last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given the clarion call of Atma Nirbhar Bharat for the country to become self-reliant during the pandemic while announcing a mega economic relief package of Rs 20 lakh crore. 

Indeed, true to the spirit of self-reliance, India went the extra mile to bring back its people who were suddenly faced with grave uncertainties as the Covid-battered world went into hibernation. India itself had imposed a strict lockdown and the ban on scheduled commercial international air traffic that was introduced on March 23 continues even to this day. 

However, India launched a mega repatriation drive; it did not depend on any other country or agency for this. What's more, several foreign nationals also returned on VBM flights. Also, certain flights were prepared to evacuate people stranded in India. 

In the first phase of the mission, nearly 15,000 Indians were planned to be brought back in a week, mainly from the Gulf countries. Not only that, over two lakh Indians had expressed their desire to be repatriated. As people were staring at vanishing livelihoods in foreign countries and longed to be united with their near and dear ones back home in the face of this unprecedented global crisis, VBM came as a boon for them. 

The first Vande Bharat flight landed in Kochi from Abu Dhabi on May 7, carrying 177 passengers and four infants. 

The enormity of the VBM is in the numbers. The first phase was handled entirely by Air India and Air India Express and a total of 64 flights brought back 12,708 people, while the same number of flights took 3,562 passengers out of India. 

In phase two, the Air India Group carried 59,576 people home on 325 flights, while sending back 15,721 people on the same number of flights. 

Also read: Vande Bharat, Air Bubbles, Lifeline Udan reinforce Air India's legacy despite barbs

There were 455 inbound and outbound flights each operated by the Air India Group in the third phase of this mission, with 89,243 people being brought back and 43,577 passengers being sent home. 

A total of 1,14,602 passengers were carried back on 640 flights by the Air India Group, while 635 flights carried 52,574 people from India in the fourth phase. 

In the fifth phase, 738 inbound flights carried 1,23,773 passengers, while 75,240 passengers went back on 734 flights operated by the Air India Group. 

In the sixth phase, 1,798 inbound Air India Group flights carried 2,50,425 passengers, while the same number of outbound flights carried 1,96,134 passengers. 

The seventh phase saw 2,372 inbound Air India Group flights carrying 3,88,245 passengers, while the same number of outbound flights carried 2,74,782 passengers out of India.

The eighth phase saw the Air India Group operating 2,799 and 2,797 inbound and outbound flights respectively, carrying 4,30,616 and 3,83,916 passengers respectively.

In the ninth phase, till March 18, 2021, 859 inbound flights had been operated by the Air India Group, carrying back 1,31,250 passengers, while 1,20,089 flyers were carried out of the country on 878 outbound flights. 

According to ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) data, till March 20, 2021, the Air India Group had operated 10,150 and 10,157 inbound and outbound flights respectively and handled a total of 2,796,702 passengers. 

Initially, Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express played a key role in the operations. Private carriers hopped onboard from phase three, with GoAir's flight from Kuwait to Ahmedabad on June 18, 2020. Since then, other carriers were allowed to take part in the programme, and if chartered flights under the mission are considered, 30,10,185 people have been brought back till March 19, 2021.

As a precursor to the VBM, India had, in fact, since February 2020, organised repatriation of stricken Indian and foreign nationals in some of the worst Covid-19 hotspot countries of the world, including China, from where the virus had originated. It had also been providing safe flight for foreigners stranded in India to their native places. Therefore, India had been working with the spirit of Atma Nirbhar Bharat even before the prime minister had made it formal. 

Also read -- Vande Bharat Mission: 7 reasons IAF stayed out of India's mega repatriation project

Air India planes brought back close to 1,500 Indian nationals and some foreigners from places like Wuhan in China (the coronavirus epicentre), Milan and Rome in Italy and even from a quarantined ship docked off the coast of Japan's Yokohama. Air India flights also carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India.

Destinations across regions like South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Oceania, Scandinavia and North America have been touched by the VBM.

India, in fact, has had a long legacy of such mega evacuation exercises. For example, in 1990, an estimated 1.7 lakh people were evacuated from the Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait leading to the First Gulf War. In 2015, under 'Operation Raahat', India evacuated 6,700 people, including citizens of 41 countries, from strife-torn Yemen.