Photos taken inside an airplane landing at Chennai Airport showed the flight crew, who had been pre-tested for Covid-19, wearing protective coveralls and smiling behind masks and visors.
Thousands of Indians have been stranded abroad since India banned all incoming flights in late March as part of a strict lockout, which has been extended three times.
British and American students lacked money for food, and workers who lost their jobs in the Gulf had no money to survive. Indians who were abroad for diagnosis or medical treatment found themselves stuck there much longer than expected, without enough money to continue paying their bills.
Every day for a week, eight or nine Air India flights carry passengers from 12 countries, mainly from the Gulf but also from the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia and from the Philippines.
Each flight will carry 200 to 250 passengers, to allow physical distance. Anyone who exhibits symptoms during the flight will be confined to a separate area.
Anshul Sheoran, the pilot of a flight that landed in Kochi, Kerala, of Abu Dhabi, told media that the doctors had trained him and his crew on the protocols to be followed. “They taught us how to put on and take off the PPE suits. We were told about the gaps and bad practices. Wearing the suits meant that we couldn’t use the restroom or eat during the flight, ”said Sheoran.
Three of India’s naval warships were deployed for the rescue operation. A naval official said a ship was under way from Malé, the capital of the Maldives, carrying nearly 700 Indians.
The government has declared that those brought back first have been selected on the basis of the urgency of their return, with priority given to those threatened with expulsion, pregnant women, the elderly, disadvantaged students with no income and medical emergencies.
The number of Indians to be repatriated in the coming weeks could reach 200,000.
The smiling faces of those returning home by plane are in stark contrast to migrant workers who suffered their own “internal exile” in Indian cities during the foreclosure.
Without jobs or income, they also desperately need to return to their villages and families, but have received little or no government assistance. So far, only a few thousand people have been able to return home on special trains.
Hundreds of thousands are still waiting in shelters. Many have given up waiting for the government to provide transportation and walk home. They travel hundreds of kilometers while transporting young children and their meager belongings in summer temperatures of 40 ° C (104 ° F).
On Friday, a freight train transported more than 16 workers who walked more than 800 kilometers to their homes in Madhya Pradesh and stopped to rest on the railroad tracks.