Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 until Monday, 17,100 Indians, mainly students, have been transported to India from neighbouring countries under the Central government’s Operation Ganga. But many state governments have also been taking part in the effort to rescue students.
Some states arranged for buses for students stranded in Ukraine to travel to neighbouring countries, after which they are sent back in flights arranged by the Union government. Once students arrive in India, many states have also arranged transport to allow them to get home. Some have promised to reimburse students for their expenses getting home after they land at Indian airports.
The states that took part in the effort are Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Telangana and Tripura.
Since flights are not operating from Ukraine, the Indian government started arranging flights from neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Poland and Romania starting from February 26, two days after the war began. However, as many returning students had complained, traversing war-torn sections of Ukraine and then getting to the border to reach these countries was the most difficult, dangerous part of the journey.
It was also challenging because travel fares in Ukraine had shot up prohibitively and many students were low on funds. Despite this, many students had to arrange for this section travel by themselves.
However, at least two state governments, Odisha and Tamil Nadu paid the bus fares for students from their states. Private contractors arranged these buses and the state governments paid for them.
On Saturday, Scroll.in reported on the plight of many students who had to travel more than 1,000 km from Pesochin in eastern Ukraine, to the country’s border with Poland, all at their own expense. Bus fares were $500 or Rs 38,000, more than the cost of a flight from Kyiv to India under normal conditions.
Many students did not have the amount handy to pay for this trip, as they told Scroll.in, so the Odisha government decided to pay the fares of students from their state. The Odisha government was in touch with an education consultancy firm, Global Focus Pvt Ltd, whose employees on the ground were helping in the evacuation.
Till Tuesday, the Odisha government has claimed that it paid for two buses that have evacuated 65 students from Ukraine.
Tamil Nadu also paid the $500 fare to transport 35 students from the state out of Pesochin to a town near the Ukrainian-Romanian border. An official of the Tamil Nadu government told Hindu Businessline that this effort complemented the Union government’s effort.
Meanwhile, the Indian Embassy on Saturday tweeted that it had arranged rescue buses for 298 students stuck in Pesochin. These buses were headed towards the Ukrainian border with Romania and Poland.
Sending students home
While the Union government is now paying for the rescue flights to India, many states had earlier offered to pay for the flight expenses of their students. On February 25, the Telangana government had asked the Centre to arrange flights for students from the state who were stranded in Ukraine and said that it would bear the full expenses of the evacuation.
The Rajasthan chief minister had also said on February 26 that his government would reimburse students who paid for their own flights out of Ukraine.
But since the Union government is paying for the rescue flights, many states have announced that they will pay for the domestic travel required to send students home once they land in India. The West Bengal government has promised free domestic air tickets and transportation to students from the state. The Bihar government has also offered to cover the travel cost once the flights by the Centre get to India.
The Gujarat government sent buses to Mumbai to bring back 56 of its students who had arrived from the war-torn region. Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb promised that he would personally pay for Delhi-Agartala flights of students who were returning from Ukraine.
Many states have also started their own helplines to assist students stranded in Ukraine.
The controversy around the rescue efforts
Though many state officials have claimed that their evacuation efforts are supporting the Centre’s initiative, the Union and various state governments have also been exchanging barbs regarding the students.
For instance, Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister, criticised the Union government for its rescue efforts. “Why is it taking so much time to bring them back?” Banerjee tweeted. “Why was not things done earlier?” she added.
Meanwhile, students from Tamil Nadu who returned from Ukraine alleged that Indian consular staff had discriminated against South Indian students in favour of North Indian students. They alleged that flights carrying Malayali students were cancelled and those carrying North Indian students were allowed to go first.
Out of a total of 20,000-odd Indian students in Ukraine, the largest number – around 5,000 – was from Tamil Nadu. Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala each had around 2,500 students, while Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Rajasthan had between 800 to 1,500 students each.
These concerns of discrimination have also been aired by Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s, politicians.
Tamil Nadu has also sent its own contingent of politicians and bureaucrats to countries bordering Ukraine to coordinate the rescue efforts. This move came after the Union government took a similar step.