Say there was an emergency in Saudi Arabia and the 3 million strong Indian diaspora was at risk. How long would it take for the Indian government to transport everyone from Riyadh to Mumbai? According to a Takshashila Institution report, it could take between 15 to 50 days depending on the availability of sea and air assets.
While India has successfully carried out many diaspora evacuations, including the airlift of more than one lakh non-resident Indians from Kuwait in 1990, the largest civilian evacuation in history, India still doesn’t have the standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place for such events.
“It’s not that India does not have a strategic culture,” said Guru Aiyar, Research Fellow at Takshashila and author of the report. “Practically, we have done good vis-à-vis major developed countries like the U.S or U.K that have comparable force levels. Having said that, MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] or the armed forces do not have SOPs, and evacuations have been conducted more as crisis management than a planned activity.”
When a civil war broke out in Yemen in 1986, it took India days before it could convince a merchant ship to pick up the 850 Indians. The British, French and Russian nationals had already been evacuated in a joint operation by their countries.
Why, despite India’s extensive experience, does it lack a formalized procedure? Part of the answer may lie in India’s past foreign policy. Nitin Pai, director at Takshashila, wrote recently that earlier governments preferred that non-resident Indians assimilate with their adopted countries. Steps taken by India to help NRIs maintain their emotional or communal links to home were considered counter-productive.
Another reason may have to do with the government’s short-term institutional memory. Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India who wrote recently about the need to institutionalize diaspora evacuations, feels that governments tend to forget experiences of such crises once they are over.
“Some officials emphasize that each crisis is unique and therefore, a general evacuation plan is not necessary. Others have expressed their concern that any emergency plan and scenario based exercises could be leaked to the public,” he said.
But such risks are minimal, he added, and there are many benefits of institutionalizing benefits in terms of financial costs, training, preparedness and speed of action. “Simple standard operating procedures can facilitate evacuation processes tremendously.”
As of 2015, almost 16 million Indians or persons of Indian origin lived abroad, making it the largest such cohort around the world. Among these, half of them lived in the Western Asia countries, such as UAE, Qatar, and Yemen, where the diaspora population grew by 150% in the past decade. Of the thirty odd evacuations carried out by India since 1947, ten were carried out in Kuwait, UAE, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
“The Gulf region is of particular importance, as testified by Saudi Arabia’s recent changes in immigration law which left dozens of thousands of Indians undocumented and in dire life conditions,” Xavier said. Indian expatriates are also at risk due to rising political populism around the world and the growing reach of Islamic terrorist organizations, he added.