States Will Have to Work with Centre Once Indians from Abroad are Brought Back: Civil Aviation Minister

New Delhi: As India gears up to evacuate lakhs of stranded citizens in various countries by employing aircraft, military planes and naval warships, beginning Thursday, the central government has said that those in distress and in dire need of evacuation on emergency grounds will be given priority over others. The first two flights from the UAE to India will be to Kochi and Kozhikode, considering the diaspora from Kerala witnessed a high number of applicants.

In an exclusive interview with CNN-News18, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri talked about the challenges the government faces in undertaking probably the largest evacuation during peace time, the working balance between the states and the Centre, and the plan ahead to help the aviation industry bounce back once the nationwide lockdown comes to an end.

Excerpts from the interview:

Has the government chalked out a timeline for the evacuation process for those who have registered to be brought back?

We had a working hypothesis of about 1.9 million people initially who wanted to be brought back. We have a plan to bring back 14,800 people during the first week. The total number might seem like a conservative estimate, but it all depends on how the pandemic pattern unfolds across the world. The airports and all the logistics are in place. But there have been instances when some had registered earlier with us, wanting to come back, withdrew later on because of factors such as situation improvement or the idea of a mandatory quarantine once they are brought back. There have been some other challenges like with some countries, they have refused to take back anyone other than those of their nationality.

How involved are the states with the plan and how do they wish to go forward with this?

We can only help to bring the people stranded and once we do, the states also will have to work in tandem with us so that they have the facilities ready to safeguard the citizens according to the guidelines. We will facilitate their arrival here and once we start doing it, after a couple days, the situation will be reviewed. We are in touch with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the authorised representatives from the states to ensure a smooth process.

Until now, only Air India has been involved in repatriation operations of citizens. Are there any plans to use the services of other private airlines soon?

We are starting with Air India and as I said, we will be open to the idea of private airlines helping out with evacuation as the situation evolves.

The implications of the coronavirus lockdown has affected all sectors. What is the government doing to help the aviation sector?

We are aware of the tremendous strain on the civil aviation sector. An estimated 2,50,000 people are directly or indirectly employed by civil aviation industry. The issue of fares, taxation and turbine fuel charges are also involved. The government will be a good sounding board for it and will extend help as much as possible. We have reached out to the finance ministry and have been talking to the airline companies, and will try and help them so that there’s minimum damage.

As the country comes out of the lockdown, how will we see the airline operations resumed?

We were one of the first countries to bring in lockdown and have been very strict with it too. We will have to re start operations sooner than later. Domestic flights will have to be re started in a calibrated and gradual manner. It’s the same problem for every transportation ministry, be it Metro, Local trains or Indian Railways. But we will probably start with 25% of flights after careful consideration of the zones they are marked under, then observe the situation before restarting some more flights in other regions.

Once the lockdown ends, we might see airlines increasing the fares. Is the government looking at capping them?

We have always been a very customer friendly country. But having said that, we have to ensure that once the restrictions end, the airlines maintain the fare structure for passengers. We will look into all those aspects once the situation improves.