On the morning of 14 July, the Indian government reportedly sent two Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft to evacuate about 500 Indians from Juba, South Sudan (as per latest reports, 156 had been evacuated and 300 refused to return). In May, India evacuated its nationals from strife-torn Libya. In another operation last year that got international recognition, India evacuated about 6,000 people, including citizens from 26 nations such as the US, France, UK, Russia, and neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc., from Yemen.
All these operations categorically demonstrate that strategic mass evacuations have become a recurrent feature with immense pressure on the government of the day “to do something very quickly”. It is timely to look at this issue strategically with an eye on capacity mapping and getting operating bases overseas. It also involves huge transaction costs that need to be borne by the exchequer.
In times of a crisis like an armed conflict that has the ability to escalate suddenly, the reaction time available with the ministry of external affairs, Indian embassies and missions abroad is extremely short. Quick and correct decision-making also requires the availability of maximum number of operational assets to support a successful evacuation. The current lift capacity might fall woefully inadequate in times of a large-scale evacuation.
There are approximately 7.3 million Indians in West Asia. However, evacuating even a fraction of these, for instance from Doha, Qatar, when the need arises might be extremely challenging. At best, only a few thousand can be taken out per day using military aircraft and ships. If the operations are to be sustained for a longer duration, maintenance, repair, overhaul, turnaround times, etc., further erode the lift capacity.
In a recent study by the Takshashila Institution, it has been estimated that it will take between 11 and 37 days under certain constraints, to evacuate less than half of the Indians from Riyadh using commercial as well as military capabilities. Therefore, in order to bolster the capacity and have a strategic lift policy in place, there are certain steps that the government needs to initiate urgently.
Firstly, secure rights to use assets that are not under direct government control. The earlier evacuations have primarily been driven by the Indian Navy, Air Force and public sector commercial airline Air India. Of course, Jet Airways was utilized in the evacuation from Yemen. There is a need for a policy in which the government can call for aircraft and ships which are under private operators. Thus, there should be a licensing clause with commercial airlines which mandates that they will make their aircraft and crew available during times of crises for evacuation operations anywhere in the world.
Secondly, have standing agreements between Indian embassies/missions abroad and private logistics operators. Before evacuation by ship or aircraft, the widely dispersed diaspora may need to be transported by road to the centralized evacuation airport or port. A standing agreement with international logistics companies and transport operators with insurance liabilities will facilitate immediate movement of the people to the focal point of evacuation.
Thirdly, forge agreements with friendly countries for sea and air bases. Assuming that the host country bases are not usable for obvious reasons in times of crisis, the government should have arrangements with friendly countries in every region where there is a high concentration of diaspora. As evacuation by air would be the fastest, having access to safe airfields close to conflict zones will be highly desirable. This will need to take into consideration the issues of territoriality and sovereignty for operating Indian military and civil aircraft.
Guru Aiyar is a research fellow with Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank on geopolitics and strategic affairs.
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