India, facing global quarantine, extends ban on regular international flights

India itself has been put under no-fly lists by several countries as the Covid-19 surge in India has reached scary proportions

India, facing global quarantine, extends ban on regular international flights
An Air India plane that carried passengers from Washington DC to Delhi under VBM. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndianEmbassyUS

India extended the ban on scheduled commercial international flights by yet another month to May 31 as the Covid-19 pandemic refuses to relent. The ban on regular international flights to and from India has already been in place for more than a year and with the coronavirus crisis not expected to die down anytime soon, the ban may actually drag on for a considerable amount of time. The Indian authorities may also have factored in the Covid storm in the country that had forced many countries to block flights from India. 

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), however, clarified in its circular dated April 30, 2021, that the restriction would not be applicable to international all-cargo flights and flights specifically approved by the regulator. "International scheduled flights may be allowed on selected routes by the competent authority on a case-to-case basis," the DGCA added. 

India had imposed a ban on regular international flights from March 23, 2020, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and since then has periodically extended the ban. The emergence of mutant strains of the virus in several countries has also made the Indian authorities circumspect. 

Also read: India quarantined! As Covid-19 wreaks havoc, these countries impose travel curbs

However, ironically India itself has been put under no-fly lists by several countries as the Covid-19 surge in India has reached scary proportions. The country added more than three lakh cases for the ninth consecutive day on April 30. The country added 3,86,452 new daily cases, while active cases rose by 85,414 on April 30. Deaths increased by 3,498 to reach a total of 2,08,330. 

Passengers in front of the Air India counter in Washington DC for a VBM flight to Delhi. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndianEmbassyUS

In spite of extending the suspension on regular international flights, some international air travel, however, had to be allowed by India. One of the reasons was the need to repatriate Indians stuck in foreign countries with the spectre of vanishing livelihoods and starvation looming large as the pandemic brought economic activities to a screeching halt all around the world and forced countries to shut down borders, impose lockdowns and ban air travel. Moreover, people longed to be back with their near and dear ones in this time of gloom, which the world was witnessing perhaps for the first time since the Second World War.

So in early May 2020, India launched a mega repatriation drive called the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to bring its citizens home. What's more, several foreign nationals also returned on VBM flights. Also, certain flights were prepared to evacuate people stranded in India.

The first Vande Bharat flight landed in Kochi from Abu Dhabi on May 7, carrying 177 passengers and four infants. Initially, Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express played a key role in the operations. Private carriers hopped onboard from phase three, with GoAir's flight from Kuwait to Ahmedabad on June 18, 2020. Since then, other carriers also joined the mission. 

Also read: India sounds fresh alert as 3 mutant coronavirus strains hit 145 countries

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted on April 25 that more than 80.2 lakh people have been facilitated under the VBM. According to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), till April 29, the Air India group had operated 12,076 inbound and 12,082 outbound flights under the VBM, carrying 18,79,968 and 14,30,834 passengers respectively.

As a precursor to the VBM, India had, in fact, since February 2020, organised the repatriation of stricken Indian and foreign nationals in some of the worst Covid-19 hotspot countries of the world, including China, from where the virus had originated. It had also been providing safe flight for foreigners stranded in India to their native places.

Not only this, but India also entered into air bubble agreements with several countries. Under such bilateral deals, the carriers of India and the partner country are able to carry passengers both ways and enjoy reciprocal rights.

Although the kind of people who can travel on these flights is clearly specified, the air bubble pacts have brought back international air travel even if in a limited way.

At present, India has air bubble agreements with 27 countries, namely Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, UAE, UK, US, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. 

Both the VBM and air bubble agreements are now bound to be severely affected with several countries prohibiting flights from India or issuing advisories against travelling to India. The proposed bubble agreement with Sri Lanka was, in fact, postponed in view of the worsening Covid-19 situation in India. 

Puri had said last year that India's decision to resume scheduled commercial international air travel depended on other countries' readiness to accept flights.