Indians Abroad

The Berlin airlift was remarkable, but the largest civilian evacuation in history is by India

As India prepares to get its citizens out of strife-torn Iraq, it can bank on its experience in 1990, when it airlifted more than one lakh people from the region in two months. In comparison, 48,000 people were flown out of Berlin over two years during the Cold War.

With Islamic militants continuing to rampage through Iraq’s countryside, the Indian government has begun looking at options to evacuate all of its citizens from the West Asian nation. The ministry of external affairs had insisted for some days that an evacuation would not be necessary, but preparations are now being made to transport anyone who would like to return home.

Fortunately, Indian authorities have a fair bit of experience in this matter. Over the past decade it has withdrawn citizens from Iraq just before the American invasion, then again in 2006 in Lebanon, and 2011 in Libya, when ministry officials worked with the Indian Navy to put up sea bridges that evacuated Indians from both war-torn nations. But its greatest achievement in safeguarding Indian citizens stuck in a war zone just happened to take place in the same country that is once again gripped with violence, Iraq.

In two months in 1990, India managed to evacuate more than 110,000 citizens from Iraq and Kuwait via an airlift that included nearly 500 flights. The operation is the largest civilian evacuation in history.

“Whenever we talk of airlifts, the only thing that people talk of is the Berlin Airlift [during the Cold War],” said Retired Air Vice Marshall Manmohan Bahadur. “Of course, the aircraft were primitive and the situation was different back then, yet airlifting one lakh people, as we did in Iraq, is unheard of.”

It began with then-external affairs minister IK Gujral’s infamous visit to Baghdad, soon after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The central thrust of Gujral’s visit was to ensure that Iraq would help facilitate the evacuation of Indian citizens from the country, although there were also discussions on trade relations between the two despite the blockade by Western countries.

Gujral’s visit included a famous embrace by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which earned him a lot of flak from the media. KP Fabian, then joint secretary, Gulf, at the external affairs ministry, said that there is no merit in the criticism.

“One cannot 'duck' an embrace from a head of state; it is a question of courtesy and manners,” Fabian told the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal. Whether the embrace was right or wrong, Iraq ended up facilitating the evacuation.

The Indian embassy began reaching out to the thousands of Indians who were living primarily in Kuwait, which was then under Iraqi occupation. A few military flights were arranged at first, with leaders in the Indian community working with the embassy to pick out the infirm, elderly, women and children to fly back. But once they had all returned to India, the government realised that military transport – which is much more cumbersome because of air space clearances – would not do the job.

So they settled on an airlift using civilian aircraft. Which meant turning to Air India. “You should have seen us,” said MP Mascarenhas, who organised the operation, as the airline’s regional director in the Gulf & Middle East. “We were operating out of a hotel room in Amman with very little space and carrying out all our operations from there.” He would later become Air India's managing director. “We had very little assistance from the embassy, other than issuing passports, but we had very good relations with the local authorities, who helped us.”

And they needed all the help they could get. Initially just a few flights were being flown and many thought that the situation might not require everyone to be evacuated. But Indians remaining behind in Kuwait City were beginning to have a difficult time because of the occupation. “The Iraqis had a soft corner for us, so we were spared the worst, but there were others – like the Palestinian expatriates – who started to loot and steal,” said Agnel Rebello, who works as a regional finance manager for a multinational company and has been in Kuwait since 1980. “At one point, I had a person hold a gun to me, telling me to give him my car. Luckily, I had removed some parts so he couldn’t start it.”

Buses organised by those in the Indian community, with the tacit agreement of the Iraqi government, started shepherding those who wanted to leave through Basra, Baghdad and eventually the Jordanian border. From there, they poured into Amman, where the planes were set to take off. “We were quite demoralised initially,” said Mascarenhas. “We started to see the refugees pouring in. Some managed to stay at hotels, but others were even camping at the airport. When we landed in Amman, there were already 5,000 to 7,000 Indians there and the numbers started swelling immediately.” Eventually, Air India would fly 488 flights over 59 days, carrying 111,711 passengers. Western historians write eloquently and in great detail of the Berlin airlift, which took nearly two years to pull out about 48,000 people, but Mascarenhas says the Indian operation also deserves to be noted.

The current situation is more manageable. There is more information on the ground and the numbers are tiny in comparison: only about 10,000 Indians, not all of whom want to leave. The 1990 operation was ten times that size. “It’s not like we didn’t make mistakes," said Mascarenhas. “We misjudged numbers a lot and, remember, we didn’t have mobile phones there. When people ask me how we did it, I say, I looked up at heaven and said, god help me.”

 

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Modern home design trends that are radically changing living spaces in India

From structure to finishes, modern homes embody lifestyle.

Homes in India are evolving to become works of art as home owners look to express their taste and lifestyle through design. It’s no surprise that global home design platform Houzz saw over a million visitors every month from India, even before their services were locally available. Architects and homeowners are spending enormous time and effort over structural elements as well as interior features, to create beautiful and comfortable living spaces.

Here’s a look at the top trends that are altering and enhancing home spaces in India.

Cantilevers. A cantilever is a rigid structural element like a beam or slab that protrudes horizontally out of the main structure of a building. The cantilevered structure almost seems to float on air. While small balconies of such type have existed for eons, construction technology has now enabled large cantilevers, that can even become large rooms. A cantilever allows for glass facades on multiple sides, bringing in more sunlight and garden views. It works wonderfully to enhance spectacular views especially in hill or seaside homes. The space below the cantilever can be transformed to a semi-covered garden, porch or a sit-out deck. Cantilevers also help conserve ground space, for lawns or backyards, while enabling more built-up area. Cantilevers need to be designed and constructed carefully else the structure could be unstable and lead to floor vibrations.

Butterfly roofs. Roofs don’t need to be flat - in fact roof design can completely alter the size and feel of the space inside. A butterfly roof is a dramatic roof arrangement shaped, as the name suggests, like a butterfly. It is an inverted version of the typical sloping roof - two roof surfaces slope downwards from opposing edges to join around the middle in the shape of a mild V. This creates more height inside the house and allows for high windows which let in more light. On the inside, the sloping ceiling can be covered in wood, aluminium or metal to make it look stylish. The butterfly roof is less common and is sure to add uniqueness to your home. Leading Indian architecture firms, Sameep Padora’s sP+a and Khosla Associates, have used this style to craft some stunning homes and commercial projects. The Butterfly roof was first used by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who later designed the city of Chandigarh, in his design of the Maison Errazuriz, a vacation house in Chile in 1930.

Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Skylights. Designing a home to allow natural light in is always preferred. However, spaces, surrounding environment and privacy issues don’t always allow for large enough windows. Skylights are essentially windows in the roof, though they can take a variety of forms. A well-positioned skylight can fill a room with natural light and make a huge difference to small rooms as well as large living areas. However, skylights must be intelligently designed to suit the climate and the room. Skylights facing north, if on a sloping roof, will bring in soft light, while a skylight on a flat roof will bring in sharp glare in the afternoons. In the Indian climate, a skylight will definitely reduce the need for artificial lighting but could also increase the need for air-conditioning during the warm months. Apart from this cleaning a skylight requires some effort. Nevertheless, a skylight is a very stylish addition to a home, and one that has huge practical value.

Staircases. Staircases are no longer just functional. In modern houses, staircases are being designed as aesthetic elements in themselves, sometimes even taking the centre-stage. While the form and material depend significantly on practical considerations, there are several trendy options. Floating staircases are hugely popular in modern, minimalist homes and add lightness to a normally heavy structure. Materials like glass, wood, metal and even coloured acrylic are being used in staircases. Additionally, spaces under staircases are being creatively used for storage or home accents.

Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Exposed Brick Walls. Brickwork is traditionally covered with plaster and painted. However, ‘exposed’ bricks, that is un-plastered masonry, is becoming popular in homes, restaurants and cafes. It adds a rustic and earthy feel. Exposed brick surfaces can be used in home interiors, on select walls or throughout, as well as exteriors. Exposed bricks need to be treated to be moisture proof. They are also prone to gathering dust and mould, making regular cleaning a must.

Cement work. Don’t underestimate cement and concrete when it comes to design potential. Exposed concrete interiors, like exposed brick, are becoming very popular. The design philosophy is ‘Less is more’ - the structure is simplistic and pops of colour are added through furniture and soft furnishings.

Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)
Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)

When building your home, it is important to use strong and durable materials. A value-added premium product with high compressive strength, Birla Gold cement is used to make tough, impermeable concrete that sets quickly, lasts long and minimises cracking. Its durability will ensure that your dream home always looks new and the steel structure inside remains protected. Birla Gold offers variants that are optimised for different needs. The unique hydraulic binding properties of the Birla Gold Premium cement variant prevent seepage, making it resistant to even corrosive water, especially important for houses in coastal cities. The Birla Gold Royal cement variant provides very high strength and is perfect for the foundation. As the video below says, with the different varieties of cement that Birla Gold offers, you can build the home of your dreams.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Birla Gold Premium Cement and not by the Scroll editorial team.