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Russia-Ukraine

Operation Ganga: The botched-up evacuation of Indian students from Ukraine

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
FL25SUMYRGB

SUMY, Ukriane, 05 March 2022: 10th day of Russia-Ukraine conflict. Indian students of the SUMY STATE UNIV in Ukraine protest and as they are headed to the Russian border that has reportedly opened its doors for students wanting to leave Ukraine. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Unlike the historic Kuwait airlift of 1990, which was a study in efficiency, the Narendra Modi government’s evacuation of Indian students from Ukraine was marred by a lack of contingency planning and efforts that proved inadequate after the onset of war.

It is painfully clear that India has not addressed properly the challenge of evacuating over 20,000 Indian students from Ukraine. There was an error of judgment about the timing of evacuation; there was no contingency planning, and actions taken after the war began proved to be woefully inadequate. Dispatching Ministers might not have helped matters much either, even as the advantage of domestic publicity it gives could be considerable.

India has extensive experience in evacuating its nationals from abroad. The 1990 evacuation of about 1,76,000 Indians by air from Kuwait and Iraq has been acknowledged by The Guinness Book of Records as the biggest. Other notable evacuations include that of 2,300 Indian nationals during the 2006 Lebanon war; 15,400 Indians from Libya in 2011; 4,640 Indians and 960 non-Indians from Yemen in 2015; the COVID-related evacuation in 2020-2021 of 60,92,264 Indians from many countries (as on April 30, 2021); and the evacuation of 565 persons, including 438 Indians, from Afghanistan in 2021.

What went wrong in Ukraine

Evacuation should start at the right time. There is no logic in waiting until the hostilities have begun or are about to begin. The first advisory issued by the Indian embassy in Kyiv on February 15 said that Indian citizens, particularly students, “ whose stay is not essential, may consider leaving temporarily ”. The italicised words were not well chosen. Helpline numbers were issued later. To figure out whether the embassy should have come out with an advisory much earlier, let us look at a timeline.

January 2021: President Volodymyr Zelensky appeals to United States President Joe Biden to let Ukraine join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In February, his government freezes the assets of opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin’s most prominent ally in Ukraine.

Spring 2021: Russia begins massing troops near Ukraine’s borders in what it says are training exercises.

November 2021: Satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies show ongoing buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine, with over 1,00,000 troops deployed.

December 17, 2021: Russia presents security demands, including that NATO pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from ever joining NATO.

January 24, 2022: NATO puts forces on standby and reinforces eastern Europe with ships and fighter jets.

January 26, 2022: Washington responds to Russia’s security demands, repeating a commitment to NATO’s “open-door” policy while offering a “pragmatic evaluation” of Moscow’s concerns. Two days later, Russia says its demands have not been addressed.

February 5, 2022: Thousands take to the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, carrying banners saying “Kharkiv is Ukraine” and “Stop Russian aggression”, as the country braces for a possible military offensive from Russia.

February 10, 2022: The U.S. urges its citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately owing to the “increased threats of Russian military action” against Ukraine.

Obviously, the Indian embassy was late in issuing the advisory. The reader will note the categorical nature of the advice from U.S. embassy as compared to the confusing phraseology from its Indian counterpart.

February 18, 2022: Air India announces three flights for February 22, 24 and 26.

February 19, 2022: Air India announces three more flights.

February 24, 2022: Airspace is closed. Only one of the six Air India flights was operated.

Instead of waiting for Air India to work out its flights, India should have sent as many flights from the Indian Air Force as necessary, starting from February 14 onwards. In that case, the evacuation might have been completed during the interval of 10 days before the airspace was closed on February 24. It is important to point out that this is not an instance of hindsight. Situations involving the safety of Indian citizens abroad call for lateral thinking and prompt action.

Also read: How the Ukraine-Russia crisis reached a tipping point

The next question is whether the Indian diplomatic missions in Ukraine and its neighbours were strengthened in good time and in good measure. There have been complaints from students about not getting clear replies from the mission. Some have complained that the mission disconnected phone calls without completing the conversation. It seems that the Indian embassy in Ukraine could have done with more personnel.

On February 24, 2022, India decided that evacuees would not be charged. However, the advisory issued by the Indian embassy on February 25 did not say that.

India should have taken the decision to waive the airfare much earlier. In 1990, the decision to waive the fare was taken right at the beginning, much before the flights started. Students who left Ukraine immediately after the first advisory were fleeced by the airlines.

The Kuwait airlift

Questions have been raised in the media comparing the 1990 evacuation and the 2022 one. It is important to note that there is a crucial difference between the two. The 1990 evacuation was done when there was no shooting war. Evacuation from or through a war zone is fraught with risks and complications. About the timing of evacuation, the evacuation from Kuwait/Iraq started in August 1990, whereas the Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait started on January 17, 1991. The evacuation was completed by October 20, 1990.

Immediately after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral went to Washington and met with his U.S. counterpart. Gujral concluded that Washington was determined to use military force instead of trying the diplomatic route first. We then decided on evacuation.

The 1990 evacuation was smooth mainly because of the synergy among the Union Government, State governments and civil society. The synergy among the ministries and departments in the Union Government was remarkable. The Prime Minister’s Office refrained from giving instructions. A Cabinet subcommittee headed by the External Affairs Minister, with representation from Finance, Civil Aviation, Railways and others, took decisions. I was Secretary to the subcommittee.

There was a United Nations ban on flights to Iraq and Kuwait. Hence Indian nationals had to reach Jordan by road. The Indian embassies in Kuwait and Iraq mobilised the community to arrange for buses. The Ministry of Civil Aviation was a study in efficiency. We all had to curtail phone conversation as 24 hours in the day were not enough. In the morning, the Air India Manager from Amman would call me: “Morning, 1800.” It meant that enough flights had to be sent the next day for 1,800 passengers. I would call Secretary, Civil Aviation (A.V. Ganesan, 1959 batch, IAS) and say, “Morning sir, 1800.” I never had to check later whether enough aircraft had been dispatched on time. It worked like a Swiss watch.

Also read: Lessons in the airlift from Kuwait

On a visit to Jordan’s capital, Amman, I was told by our people accommodated far away that there was a shortage of bottled water. In the same building there were evacuees from the Philippines too. Apparently, there was shortage and the ladies from the Philippines flirted with the security guards to get preference in allocation of bottles. A phone call to the president of the Indian Women’s Association (Indu Sethi, wife of the late Ranjt Sethi who was Ambassador) brought a truckful of bottled water in less than 45 minutes.

The cooperation from the national media, especially The Hindu , deserves to be mentioned. One morning in Amman, I was at the breakfast lounge when the Air India Manager Manuel came to me with a long face. He almost refused to have breakfast. The previous night, the crew had “walked out” on him. The crew was ready well on time for the flight scheduled to leave at 7 p.m. However, the buses carrying passengers were coming late. The last bus had not arrived by 10:30 p.m. The crew told Manuel that they had been on duty since 6 p.m. and if they waited for the last bus they would be on duty for too long, much beyond the specified hours. Manuel had to take care of the accommodation of passengers for the night. Some of them were elderly and there were mothers with babies. Manuel and I discussed it but could not find a way out. Talking to the pilot and the crew, the Civil Aviation secretary and the Foreign Secretary was an option.

After Manuel left, I called up my good friend Firdaus Khergamwala of The Hindu, based in Bahrain. I told him to carry a story praising Air India; the passengers were coming late for no fault of theirs as the Jordanian Police did several rounds of checks on the same bus, and yet Air India welcomed the passengers with a smile; the crew worked beyond the call of duty; and we all, those of us in the government and outside it, had to take a leaf out of Air India’s book. Firdous laughed and asked me whether I was serious. I had to tell him the real situation. I added that if he carried the story, what I told him would be vindicated. He hesitated, but when I told him that it was correct professionally to believe a Senior Joint Secretary to the government of India and carry a story from him verbatim, he agreed. The next morning, Manuel came to breakfast with a beaming face saying that the crew had assured him that they would never walk out on him.

In conclusion, Ministry of External Affairs should make a manual for evacuation if it is not there yet.

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