The Government of India launched ‘Operation Ganga’ to bring home Indian students & Indian nations from conflict-ridden Ukraine. Over the years, India has successfully conducted multiple large-scale evacuation operations. In 2009, the government also set up the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) to assist Overseas Indians during crises.
On 24 February 2022, the President of the Russian Federation announced a ‘Special Military Operations’ in Ukraine. The Indian Embassy in Ukraine had issued multiple advisories before the launch of the military operation and later asked Indians to leave the country if possible due to the increasing hostilities.
International Organizations like the UNO called the Russian Federation’s military offensive ‘Wrong, against Charter, Unacceptable, But Not Irreversible’. Amidst increasing violence on the ground in various parts of Ukraine, the government of India launched an initiative ‘Operation Ganga’, to evacuate stranded Indians from war-torn Ukraine.
In this story, we look at the timeline details of some of the major evacuations carried out by the government of India during a crisis in various countries. The data considered for this story is only related to evacuation operations during a war or an internal conflict in a specific country. Evacuation during COVID-19 is not considered for the story.
Data Note: The evacuation operations data used in this story is sourced from the annual reports of the Ministry of External Affairs between 2000-01 to 2020-21, replies to questions in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
The Ministry of External Affairs serves (MEA) as a nodal point for evacuation operations.
Though India has no formal rescue and evacuation policy, it has conducted more than two dozen evacuation operations across the world in the last two decades. Of all the external evacuation operations carried out by India, MEA served as the major point of contact in these extraordinary situations often with coordination of other ministries or departments like Civil Aviation for logistical support, with Defence Ministry for the deployment of military capabilities, and with Finance Ministry for financial support for repatriation, to name a few.
India conducted several Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO)
Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) are missions/operations to evacuate Indian citizens, and sometimes of other friendly countries, from unstable, potentially dangerous, and conflict-affected areas. Below are a few important and well-known wartime evacuations conducted by India in the last two decades.
To begin with, during the First Gulf War that began with the Iraqi forces moving into Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and lasted until they were expelled on 27 February 1991, India conducted the evacuation of over 150,000 Indians which is recognised as the biggest ever civilian airlift in history.
Operation Sukoon (2006): During the Israel-Lebanon war in July-August 2006, an Indian fleet led by warship INS Mumbai went right into Beirut harbour. About 12,000 Indians were residing in Lebanon then. The Indian Navy evacuated 1836 Indians who desired to leave and evacuated other nationals which includes 65 Nepalese, 433 Sri Lankans. They were evacuated by ships to Larnaca in Cyprus and from there by Air India chartered flights to India.
Operation Safe Homecoming (2011): Multiple evacuation operations were organized in the year 2011. As the situation deteriorated in Libya, more than 16,200 Indian nationals desirous of returning to India were evacuated from Libya by all means, i.e. by air, sea, and land. Further, 698 Indian nationals were also evacuated from Yemen in view of civil disturbance. Due to the turmoil in Egypt during January & February of 2011, Air India arranged three special flights, on a ‘no profit’ basis, for Indian citizens living in Egypt and stranded Indian tourists who wanted to leave Egypt. Around 670 Indians availed of these special Air India flights to return to India.
Operation Raahat (2015): The Government conducted Operation ‘Raahat’ in March-April 2015 for the evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen. The then Minister of State and former Army chief Gen V.K. Singh headed that mission from Djibouti- 4,748 Indians and 1,962 foreign nationals of 48 nations were evacuated in all, some by ships to Djibouti, while others were flown out of Sana in a specially negotiated humanitarian window for flights.
Operation Sankat Mochan (2016): Led on the ground by Minister of State for External Affairs Gen. V. K. Singh, the Operation was launched on 14-15 July of 2016, which was a one-day operation to bring back about 153 Indians and 2 citizens of Nepal. They were evacuated on board two C-17 aircraft from Juba, South Sudan, during a ceasefire in the fighting.
Operation Devi Shakti (2021): In mid-August 2021, after the Taliban takeover, following the rapid decline in the security situation in Afghanistan, India-based personnel from Indian Embassy and other Consulates were recalled and the Government of India ran a mission named operation ‘Devi Shakti’ to evacuate a total of 565 people including 438 Indians.
Apart from the above, there were several minor yet important wartime evacuation operations carried out by the government of India in Yemen and Egypt in 2011, in Ukraine, Iraq, Malta, Libya, and the Central African Republic in 2014 due to a range of reasons like an internal political crisis, wars, breakdown of law and order, and deteriorating security conditions
Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) to assist Overseas Indians during a crisis
In 2009, the Government of India set up the ‘Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF)’ in all the Indian Missions/Consulates abroad. The fund was set up to meet contingency expenditure incurred for carrying out various welfare activities for overseas Indian citizens who are in distress and emergency in the ‘most deserving cases’ on a ‘means tested basis’.
Some of the important objectives of the fund are:
- To provide boarding and lodging facilities for distressed Overseas Indian workers in household/ domestic sectors and unskilled labourers.
- To Extend emergency medical care and initial legal assistance in deserving cases to the Overseas Indians in need.
- Providing air passage to stranded Overseas Indians in need.
- To provide for the expenditure on airlifting the mortal remains to India or local cremation/burial of the deceased Overseas Indians in such cases where the sponsor is unable or unwilling to do so as per the contract and the family is unable to meet the cost.
The fund is raised by the Indian Missions by levying additional charges on consular services. For instance, the Embassy of India in Kuwait raised about 3.4 crore rupees as fees/contributions towards ICWF in the year 2014, for aiding Indian nationals in Kuwait.
Earlier in 2016, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) provided data of country-wise and case-wise number of Overseas Indians who were provided assistance through ICWF, in response to a question in Parliament. The data provided was till the year 2016.
Since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic till October 2021, the Government of India has spent approximately Rs. 44 crores for Boarding and Lodging, Air Passage, Emergency Medical Care, and evacuation purposes from the Indian Community Welfare Fund.
The government also provided details of the number of beneficiaries of the ICWF since 2014, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha in August 2021. As per this update, since 2014, around Rs. 447.2 crores have been utilized to extend assistance to over 2.61 lakh Indians abroad from the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF). As per another response in the Lok Sabha, as of September 2021, the Indian Community Welfare Fund has an available amount of approximately Rs. 474 crores.
The year-wise number of beneficiaries and the amount utilized is given in the following chart.
Evacuations are important to India’s foreign policy
India’s foreign policy has a special place for the welfare of expatriate workers, students, and others worldwide. India has more than 3 crore overseas Indians spread across 210 countries which means any kind of conflict anywhere in the world is sure to affect Indian nationals in those countries.
According to a 2016 paper by Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India, to ensure the protection and safe homecoming of its repatriates, the Indian government must strive to institutionalize standard operating procedures and invest in training and contingency plans.