Covid-19: Taking Indian citizens back home – analysis
Speaking in 2014 with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi promised that “I will never disappoint you.” The following year, speaking in Dubai, he thanked the Indian workers in the Gulf for their contribution to the homeland: “Even if it rains in India, you open your umbrellas to keep us safe.”
The crisis caused by coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has now turned things around, with NRI and other Indian nationals abroad asking Modi to follow through on his promises and bring them home safely. After taking advantage of the diaspora’s international reach at home, the prime minister will have already realized that the committed support of the diaspora, including politicians and financiers, comes at a price.
There are between 10 and 20 million Indian citizens abroad. In the Gulf countries alone, 300,000 Indians have registered to return, and approximately 10,000 have contracted the virus. This poses an unprecedented challenge, one that no other country has yet faced. So how can you ensure your safe passage home with minimal operating costs and maximum political benefit? The Vande Bharat Mission is yet another attempt by Modi to transform an external crisis into a domestic opportunity.
As of Thursday, and coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA), the Vande Bharat Mission is likely to be the largest and most complex repatriation mission ever undertaken by India, and possibly worldwide. There will be 64 flights in the first week, for 15,000 people. However, unlike other past operations, including from the Gulf in 1990 or Yemen in 2015, this time the government will only serve as a facilitator. Officials stressed this week that this “is not an evacuation plan, as it is not sponsored by the government” and only “coordinated by MEA and missions around the world … on a commercial basis.”
This is a subtle but important clarification that raises several questions. Citizens flying from North America, for example, will be charged up to ~ 1 lakh for a one-way flight and have begun to voice their concerns. What will happen to those financially vulnerable, especially in the Gulf, who cannot afford their trip? Will they be abandoned, subject to the virus, chronic unemployment and xenophobic reaction? And what about the optics of people who pay to be taken home by the Indian Navy or the Indian Air Force?
The pay-as-you-go policy is also driven by the need to reduce the financial burden on the government’s coffers, in particular Air India, which is still owed money for past operations. The hundreds, if not thousands, of repatriation flights in the coming weeks and months will be a good injection of funds at the struggling airline. And by charging citizens stranded abroad for the real cost of flight, the government also seeks to avoid criticism for giving special treatment to the diaspora, even when domestic migrants face difficult circumstances to move across the country.
In addition to the commercial aspect of the Vande Bharat Mission, the government also faces five more challenges. First, you will have to make and explain difficult decisions about prioritizing different countries. The first week, for example, you will see a flight from Dhaka but none from Kathmandu. The objective sequence logic of the MEA will also be continually under pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and different state governments, given different political agendas, including the upcoming state elections.
Second, diplomatic missions will also strive to develop fairly ambiguous “convincing” criteria for selecting who is eligible and prioritized for repatriation. This will depend on the discretion of local diplomats, but is bound to create tension: foreign citizens are excluded from the application, but what will happen, for example, to Indian parents with dependent children who have foreign passports?
Third, in a struggling Indian economy, authorities must also ensure that returnees can be reinstated with minimal disruption. The MEA’s appointment of nodal officers with additional secretary rank to oversee coordination with each state government is welcome. The economy may lose a significant amount of critical remittances, around 2% of GDP, but the return of skilled migrants can also be exploited as an opportunity for various sectors.
Fourth, with the deployment of the Navy to the Maldives, and the Air Force preparing their aircraft, there will also be challenges of civil-military coordination to ensure a successful repatriation. In one of its first practical tests, the newly created military affairs department will play an important role in securing air and sea routes for safe passage.
Ultimately, it will be the efforts of Indian diplomats on the ground, serving at the forefront in more than 100 countries, that will determine the success of the mission. Every crisis requires all hands on deck, but with fewer than 1,000 officers, it should be a matter of concern that the Indian Foreign Service has little time for more strategic tasks in a rapidly changing world order.
Even if it all ends well, with the prime minister showing up to claim success and reap political benefits, hopefully the Covid-19 crisis will also make it clear that Diaspora diplomacy in India requires more investment. In addition to political demonstrations and cultural festivals, Modi will have to devote more resources to improving consular services, expanding diplomatic personnel, and, most importantly, better training to carry out future operations.
Constantino Xavier is Fellow, Foreign Policy and Security Studies, Brookings India
The opinions expressed are personal.