As Kerala government prepared for the return of migrant workers and NRIs to the state this week, CM Pinarayi Vijayan said the Centre had halved its list of expatriates to be evacuated.
The external affairs ministry said on Tuesday over 14,800 Indians in 13 countries will be brought back by 64 flights in the first week.
At his press conference, Pinarayi said the Centre had informed the state government it would bring back 2,150 expatriates from Kerala in the first phase of the evacuation operations commencing on Thursday.
The NRIs will arrive at Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram airports in the first five days. (See list of flights here.)
Pinarayi said, “We hear the Centre plans to bring back a total of just 80,000 NRIs to the state. Kerala’s list for the first phase of evacuation had 1,69,336 people on it.”
The CM said the Centre had not allowed for this.
Pinarayi said 4.42 lakh expatriates from the state had registered on the non-resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department to return home, as instructed by the Kerala government. Of this, 69,179 had registered to land at Kannur airport, which has been excluded from the Centre’s list.
The Home Ministry had said on Monday only people showing no symptoms of COVID-19 will be allowed to travel.
Pinarayi said he had written to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for NRIs to be tested before they are brought back.
“There are 200 people in a flight. If one or two have the virus, it can be very dangerous for the country.”
The CM said he had suggested the country set up testing labs in countries where NRIs are finding it difficult to get tested as had been previously done for Indians in Italy and Iran.
What NRIs will have to do
— The Central government said passengers on the repatriation flights will be charged. While it is not clear what the cost of these flights to Kerala is, the civil aviation ministry said a passenger on a London-Delhi flight will be charged Rs 50,000 and those on a Dhaka-Delhi flight will be charged Rs 12,000.
— Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said that those arriving by repatriation flights will have to be screened and then put under 14-day quarantine.
— The home ministry said on Tuesday all those being evacuated on these flights have to download the Aarogya Setu app on arrival at destination.
The state government said it plans to conduct widespread antibody tests among expats and is working on keeping over 2 lakh testing kits ready.
Over 2.5 lakh beds are being prepared across all fourteen districts of the state to quarantine them.
Those showing Covid-19 symptoms will be quarantined at government-run facilities, others will be asked to quarantine at home.
The state government has said it will bear the expenses of quarantining people.
Cochin International Airport said a three phased dis-infestation project was going on at the airport while mock drills for testing different systems had already been completed.
“Extensive preparations to ensure implementation of COVID-19 evacuation protocol and exit social distancing norms are underway at the Cochin International Airport Limited,” a spokesman of the airport told PTI on Monday.
“Apart from the temperature guns to read the temperature of the passengers, the process of installing thermal scanners at the arrival area are on. Entire synthetic/textile wrapped furniture were replaced with temporary plastic chairs,” the spokesman said.
In Kochi, a defence ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday that naval ship INS Shardul has been sent to Dubai to evacuate the expatriates. For people from other states who return on this ship, the state government said it would make arrangements for travel back to their home state.
For migrant workers and students
Kerala government said 1,80, 540 migrant workers had registered to return to the state. The state government issued passes to 25,410 people of which 3,363 have returned, Pinarayi said.
A pass issued by Kerala and one from the state the people are coming from is mandatory to enter the state through private vehicles. Passes for Kerala can be secured here.
Manorama News reported that on Tuesday nearly 100 people were crossing the Walayar checkpost every hour.
The CM said that people coming to Kerala from red zone districts in other states will have to stay in government’s quarantine facility for one week. They can finish the rest of the mandatory two-week quarantine at home, if they show no Covid-19 symptoms.
For Malayali students in northern states who have finished their courses, the state will use Delhi as a hub and arrange for train travel back to the state, Pinarayi said.
Regarding inter-state travel, the state government said it was considering what facility to provide people who want to return to Kerala but do not have vehicles.
On Monday, the CM said he had written to Modi requesting special trains to bring stranded Malayalis back to the state.
Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said all registered expatriates from Kerala in the Gulf region who want to return should be brought back and poor blue collar workers must not be charged by the government for the journey.
Tharoor urged Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to speak with the central government and get Air India, local airlines and naval ships to offer many services daily to finish repatriation in the next 20 days before monsoon begins.
“They should not charge poor blue collar workers, many of whom have not been paid for a month, for this either,” Tharoor said.
Tharoor also said it was wrong to restrict repatriation only to essential or emergency cases.
“Let everyone who needs to come back for whatever reason do so. Returning home is a human right for any Indian citizen. Other democracies have accepted this principle in evacuating their nationals,” the former minister of state for external affairs said.
If in initial flights, priorities have to be observed, pravasi representatives have asked for people with mental and physical disabilities to be included in high priority lists, Tharoor said. Also, insisting on COVID-free certification is neither practical nor necessary since arrivals must be isolated anyway, he said.
“For the indigent, if the state government can pay 50 per cent of the fare, there are Non Resident Keralite volunteer organizations like OICC/INCAS & KMCC who can cover the remaining 50 per cent. If Centre refuses to waive charges, state government should use this method of covering 50 per cent of the ticket fare + seek donations,” he tweeted.
Tharoor, in his tweets, also raised the issue of pregnant women with tickets to travel home in March for delivery in May/June are disallowed on commercial flights with late-stage pregnancy.
NRIs have appealed to the central government to arrange a special “medical flight” for pregnant women who cannot afford to deliver abroad, he said.