India's war on Covid-19: How Lifeline Udan proved critical for success of lockdown

The Covid-related exchanges under the Lifeline Udan scheme not only helped to save lives in various parts of the world, but it also boosted India's global standing as a country taking a lead role in fighting the scourge of coronavirus

India's war on Covid-19: How Lifeline Udan proved critical for success of lockdown
National carrier Air India has played a key role in the Lifeline Udan programme. Photo courtesy: Lifeline Udan website

As India went into a strict lockdown on March 25, 2020 to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, international and domestic flights were suspended. To ensure that the lockdown measures, including travel bans, don't cause panic among the public, emphasis was put from the very beginning on the unhindered supply of essential items. With this in mind, the government did not ban the operation on cargo flights, and on March 26 -- a day after imposing the nationwide lockdown -- came up with a vital scheme called Lifeline Udan.

This scheme, inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call of 'Jaan Bhi Jahan Bhi', was aimed at using Lifeline Udan flights to supply medical and other essential items to the remotest corners of the country and beyond.

The cargo transported by the domestic Lifeline Udan flights included Covid-19-related reagents, enzymes, medical equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, gloves, masks, other materials of HLL and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and cargo requisitioned by state governments and Union Territories, postal packets and so on.

The bulk of the cargo consisted of light-weight and voluminous products. These occupied a relatively large space on the aircraft. Special permissions, therefore, were taken to use the passenger seating area and overhead cabins of the planes for storing cargo with due precautions.  

The scheme was based on a hub and spoke model. Thus cargo hubs were set up at bigger cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Guwahati. These centres were then connected to the smaller airports in Dibrugarh, Agartala, Aizwal, Dimapur, Imphal, Jorhat, Lengpui, Mysuru, Nagpur, Coimbatore, Trivandrum, Bhubaneswar, Raipur, Ranchi, Srinagar, Port Blair, Patna, Cochin, Vijayawada, Ahmedabad, Jammu, Kargil, Ladakh, Chandigarh, Goa, Bhopal and Pune.

Special emphasis was put on the Northeast, islands and hill states, with Air India and the Indian Air Force (IAF) collaborating mainly for transporting supplies to Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Northeast and island regions.

According to the latest government data, till 1 June 2020, as many as 588 flights were operated by Air India, Alliance Air, IAF, Pawan Hans and private carriers like SpiceJet, IndiGo and Vistara. Till that time, an aerial distance of over 5,45,085 km was covered and 940 tonnes of essential medical cargo was transported. 

Till 29 April 2020, Air India and its wholly-owned subsidiary Alliance Air together operated 241 out of a total of 415 flights. A total of 4,07,139 km was traversed and around 780 tonnes of cargo transported.

Apart from that, Pawan Hans Ltd had been providing helicopter services to Jammu and Kashmir, islands and the Northeast. Till 29 April, the helicopter company carried two tonnes of cargo over 7,257 km. SpiceJet, Blue Dart and IndiGo had also flown cargo flights on a commercial basis to supplement Lifeline Udan.

SpiceJet operated 683 flights (out of which 245 were international flights) carrying 4,940 tonnes of cargo over 11,84,107 km from 24 March to 29 April. IndiGo, on the other hand, operated 64 flights (18 international flights) carrying 269 tonnes of cargo over 1,01,989 km from 3-29 April. Logistics service provider Blue Dart operated 233 flights (12 international flights) from 25 March to 29 April carrying 3,932 tonnes of cargo over a distance of 2,53,631 km.

Vistara lent its support too in the effort to keep lives ticking while the war on Covid-19 was underway at full swing. The airline even pledged to press its newly-acquired and high-profile Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to transport "relief material, medical supplies and essential goods for millions at home and on the frontline". Vistara operated 17 flights from 19-29 April, carrying 123 tonnes of cargo over 24,141 km.

On 16 April, the first consignment of equipment required to set up a biosafety level-3 laboratory in Nagaland was delivered by the C-17 Globemaster-III, the biggest transport aircraft of the IAF.

Till 7 May, flights under Lifeline Udan delivered over 350 tonnes of cargo in the Northeast alone. 

A portal for coordinating Lifeline Udan-related activities was developed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and Ministry of Civil Aviation in a record time of three days to ensure seamless coordination between the various stakeholders and smooth operation of the scheme. Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola said in an interview to Doordarshan that every day, resident commissioners of the states stationed in Delhi were required to upload their demands on this portal. After that, the ICMR also put its requests on the portal.

"The MoCA war room, which comprises all stakeholders, then considers these requests and formulates the network for the next day -- which plane will fly from where to where and at what time. When that network is completed, we send it back to the states for confirmation. We get confirmation around 10-11 pm. By midnight, the plans are finalised and work orders are issued to the airlines and monitoring is done," he added.

Kharola said that there had been challenges like delays in delivery, but the system had matured and was working as a piece of well-oiled machinery. He lauded the efforts of loaders, air traffic controllers, pilots and cabin crew in making the scheme a grand success despite hiccups on the way.

Lifeline Udan extended its reach outside India's borders as well. A cargo air bridge was established between India and East Asia for the transportation of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and Covid-19 relief material. From 4-29 April, Air India carried 729 tonnes of medial cargo from China (Shanghai and Guangzhou), Hong Kong and South Korea (Seoul).

Kharola pointed out that India had placed big orders for PPE kits from China. This involved large-scale coordination between Indian missions and embassies, manufacturers, suppliers, airlines, freight forwarders and Chinese airports. Since it was an unprecedented situation, the Indian representatives were for the first time learning about the Chinese systems -- how to take permissions, how to apply, etc, he said. There were difficulties initially, but things soon fell into place, Kharola revealed.  

In addition to this, Blue Dart brought in about 114 tonnes of medical supplies from Guangzhou and Shanghai from 14-29 April, while SpiceJet lifted 124 tonnes of medical supplies from Shanghai till 25 April and 13 tonnes from Hong Kong and Singapore till 25 April. 

In May, Spicejet operated cargo flights to Sudan and South Korea, with its maiden flights to these two countries carrying 16 tonnes of cargo each. In the same month, the airline also operated a freighter flight to the Philippines carrying 17 tonnes of essential supplies, including medical cargo. In April SpiceJet flew a flight to Malaysia with eight tonnes of critical medical cargo. The airline also carried 14 tonnes of medical supplies to New Delhi from Guangzhou. 

IndiGo, on the other hand, announced in May that it had flown three cargo flights carrying over 50 tonnes of cargo, including pharmaceutical products, fruits and vegetables to and from Maldives and Singapore.  

Air India also took nine tonnes of medical cargo on 7 April and four tonnes on 8 April to Colombo. Another flight carried 3.4 tonnes of cargo to Seychelles and 12.6 tonnes to Mauritius on 15 April. 

Furthermore, under the Krishi Udan programme, an Air India flight from Mumbai to London in the United Kingdom on 13 April carried 28.95 tonnes of fruits and vegetables and returned with 15.6 tonnes of general cargo. Another flight operated by the airline took 27 tonnes of seasonal fruits and vegetables to Frankfurt in Germany and brought back 10 tonnes of general cargo.

Regulatory initiatives that were announced included demurrage waiver of up to 50% on import cargo at airports and extending the validity of certificates of dangerous goods like chemicals used for medicines. 

These Covid-related exchanges not only helped to save lives in various parts of the world, but it also boosted India's global standing as a country taking a lead role in fighting the scourge of coronavirus. It helped India draw help from countries of East Asia, which were among the first to face the brunt of the deadly virus, while international assistance provided by India acted to extend its soft power. It has also ensured that medical cargo, food, relief materials and other essential items reach the most far-flung and difficult-to-reach areas of the country. PM Modi, in his Mann ki Baat, reserved special praise for those associated with the Lifeline Udan project.

"Hope. Help. Happiness. #CoronaWarriors of Civil Aviation continue to add strength to India's undaunted fight against the pandemic," tweeted Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri. He provided as beautiful analogy comparing the role played by Mission Lifeline Udan with Lord Hanuman taking flight, carrying the entire Dronagiri mountain, laden with life-saving herbs, all the way from the Himalayas to Lanka, to save Lakshman's life during the Ramayana war. Lifeline Udan has truly proven to be the lifeline for ensuring the success of the lockdown and India's fight against the killer coronavirus.