Jan 27, 2023
Jan 27, 2023
Operation Ganga is the codename given to the Indian government efforts for prompt and safe evacuation of its citizens trapped in the war-torn Ukraine, an overwhelming majority of whom comprised of (medical) students. The operation was a combined and integrated work of the Indian Government’s Ministry of External Affairs & Indian embassy, Indian Air Force, and private air liners namely Air India, Indigo, Spice Jet, Go First, Air India Express and Air Asia India, with the support and coordination of the governments and embassies of Russia, Ukraine, and the latter’s neighbouring countries. It was officially commenced on 26 February and concluded with the last batch of approximately 600 students rescued from Sumy, Ukraine and airlifted to India on 11 March 2022. Simultaneously, controversies erupted in the electronic and print media when many students back home severely criticized the government for the alleged lack of assistance from the Indian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, inconveniences faced during the inland travel and at border, sub standard transit accommodation, food, water and other amenities. Needless to mention, the traditional approach of the political opposition and a section of media finding faults, inflammatory videos and statements made by some students, and defence put forth by the pro-government elements made it a hotly debated and controversial operation till date.
Response of US and Other Countries
It may be relevant to see what other nationalities have done or provide for the evacuation of their citizens during crisis in a foreign country. The Western countries such as the US, UK and Germany or even Asian countries like China and Japan are not only more influential and resourceful but also have better relationship with Ukraine. Notwithstanding these facts, they were found reluctant to undertake evacuation programme citing various reasons and many of them simply issued advisory to their citizens to take necessary precautions for own safety and exit from Ukraine to one of the neighbouring European countries through own efforts. If we have a look at the US advisory, arguably the most powerful and resourceful country on the planet, the country did not take direct responsibility for the evacuation of own citizens ruling out any dispatch of rescue teams; instead, it encouraged them to seek commercial transportation to exit Ukraine with many ‘ifs and buts’. For instance, there standing instructions say if commercial options were not available but the consular officers at the embassy or consulate, are still functioning, they may try helping the US citizens in identifying the possible transportation options. Some important points made by the US for its citizens when they actually undertake evacuation in a crisis situation are as under.
Indian History of Past Evacuations
The current evacuation plan Operation Ganga undertaken by the Government of India (GOI) is not the first of its kind but, in fact, many such operations have been carried out on humanitarian ground in the past on account of the crisis due to war and other emergencies during the last three decades. What has changed now is the advent of many effective social media platforms which are actively used by the common man, government agencies and their opposition/critics as well for prompt communication, dissemination of information and even opinion formation. The other important change is that during the reign of previous governments, decisions were taken by the political executives and its execution was largely left to the bureaucrats for implementation, but in the present Indian government the political executives associate themselves at all levels including supervision and implementation as well. The evacuation campaigns undertaken in the past include Kuwait Airlift, Operation Sukoon, Operation Surakshit Ghar Wapsi, Operation Matreyi, Operation Raahat, Operation Samudra Setu, Operation Vande Bharat Mission, and Operation Devi Shakti. Unlike the approach of the Western countries of focusing only on their own citizens during any crisis, the usual Indian approach has been to help people of other nationalities too apart from own citizens during any crisis.
From the aforesaid description, it is amply clear that irrespective of the political parties in government at the Centre, India has always taken care of its citizens in crisis and stranded in the foreign countries and also helped people of other nationalities in desperate need in true spirit of the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The world is one family). The noticeable difference has been only in the government’s approach towards the crisis in different regimes. Ever since the NDA Government came in power at Centre in 2014, Prime Minister Modi has personally supervised all such operations with humane touch and sensitivity. As against this, more powerful and resourceful Western governments, particularly the US, have largely focused on their own nationals or at best some of their close allies for such assistance during any crisis. Notwithstanding, neither the present government and their supporters need to take undue pride in helping own citizens nor the opposition and traditional liberals of the country should resort to finding unwarranted faults.
Execution of The Operation Ganga
In the instant case of the rescue of Indian nationals, majority being students, from the war-torn Ukraine, the evacuation efforts were carried out under the auspicious codename “Operation Ganga” by the Government of India. As the Ukraine air space was closed for the civil aviation with the onset of war, the question of airlift of citizens from the country was ruled out and all evacuees were requested to reach the relatively safe Western cities of Ukraine through available rail and road transport and cross border to the neighbouring countries of Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia in coordination and support with the Indian embassy staff. From these countries, the government had made arrangement to promptly airlift them to India. Although there are conflicting versions about the advisory and assistance rendered by the Indian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, the information available on the embassy website clearly indicates that the first such advisory was issued by the Indian embassy on 15 February 2022 requesting all Indian nationals and more particularly students whose stay was not essential to leave Ukraine temporarily. They were also advised to avoid non-essential travel and keep their status informed to embassy. Further advisories and instructions had been issued on 18, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28 February and 2nd March 2022 by the Indian embassy about safety and security measures, closure of Ukraine air space, safe travel, help lines, evacuation efforts, and so on.
While the author is writing these lines, the aforesaid advisories and instructions are still available on the homepage of the embassy website. All Indian nationals and students in Ukraine were certainly expected to constantly update themselves with the day to day developments as the crisis was unfolding in Ukraine. Once the air space was closed and martial law imposed following the Russian invasion, the very expectation that each and every Indian national or student shall be individually attended without a time lag or physically rescued by the officials is neither fair nor feasible due to constraints of manpower and prevailing situation. There were estimated twenty thousand Indians, mainly students, in Ukraine at the time and some of them even complained about the mal-treatment including racial discrimination while crossing the border to reach the neighbouring countries. Anticipating official requirements, prevailing tension and sensitive situation at the check posts, the Indian embassy in Kyiv had issued an advisory dated 26 February requesting Indian nationals not to move to any border posts without prior coordination with the Indian officials through emergency and help line numbers.
When the war started on 24 February 2022, while the heads of states of US and some European countries were engaged in military threats and blame game with Russia, the Prime Minister of India was among few world leaders who spoke to the Russian as well as Ukrainian Presidents on 26 February during which among other issues, the question of security and safe passage of Indian nationals and cooperation of both the warring countries for their safe evacuation was discussed. Simultaneously, four union ministers, namely HS Puri (Hungary), Jyotiraditya Scindia (Romania and Maldova), Gen VK Singh (Poland) and Kiren Rijiju (Slovakia) were detailed the very next day to the neighboring countries of Ukraine for effective coordination and garnering support from the concerned authorities in these countries. The Indian Air Force and private airlines such as Air India, Indigo, Spice Jet, Go First, Air India Express and Air Asia India were roped in for the necessary logistical support in bringing back the evacuees. Besides, from 26 February to 7 March 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine time and again for their assistance in providing safety and safe passage to Indians by creating humanitarian corridors, as required, during the execution of the Operation Ganga.
Of the estimated 20,000 Indian nationals in Ukraine, over 18,000 of them were students, an overwhelming majority pursuing medical studies in different universities. According to reports, nearly eighteen thousand nationals had reached the neighbouring countries crossing the border of Ukraine by 5 March. However, many of them were still trapped in different eastern cities where heavy fighting and shelling between the two armies was going on. For instance, an emergency evacuation call was received from a large number of students held up in Sumy. Special dispensation was made by the Russian army to provide safe passage through a humanitarian corridor to approximately 600 students (some reports said 800) stuck up in Sumy with concerted efforts of the Indian officials. Somewhat similar efforts were made to rescue many Indians stuck up in Kharkiv, Ukraine too. According to reports, about sixteen thousand Indian students and other nationals were flown back to India in 76 flights by 6 March. The Indian Air Force C-17 Globe Master, Air India and Indigo aircrafts carried out the maximum sorties to bring home the Indian nationals from the neighbouring countries of Ukraine. Subsequently, the Ministry of External Affairs confirmed on 8 March the MEA that all students stuck up in Sumy had been moved to safe location through the humanitarian corridors facilitated. Apart from the Indian nationals, several citizens of the neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan were also air lifted.
Contrary to the complaints made by many students about the lack of guidance and physical assistance, the verifiable Indian embassy records and the presence of strong teams of the Indian officials on ground supervised by four union ministers present altogether a different picture. The first advisory on 15 February was followed by a frequently asked questions and answers on 16 February for the guidance of all through the embassy website. The advisory dated 25 February inter alia requested Indian nationals to carry passport, adequate cash preferably in USD for emergency expenses and Indian Flag mandatorily and prominently pasted on the vehicles used by the travelers. With the deteriorating conditions and finding it increasingly difficult to provide individual assistance due to overwhelming numbers, the embassy had advised students on 26 February not to go to the border posts without prior coordination from the embassy. The security advisory dated 27 February was specifically addressed to students in Kharkiv, Sumy and Kyiv and vide another advisory on 28 February all Indian citizens were requested to be patient and calm, move and seek shelter in the western Ukraine but go to borders only after prior coordination with the Indian authorities. There is sufficient evidence and reasons to believe that the Government of India and Indian embassy in Ukraine were doing everything feasible to help their citizens during the crisis. Notwithstanding all this, many students did not pay heed to advisories and protocol in sheer panic and, consequently, put to hardship at different locations.
Analysis of The Students’ Complaints
Following the Operation Ganga, the majority students were found contented and cheerful reciting patriotic slogans like “Bharat Mata ki jai” on landing, and their parents, close relatives and friends too expressed gratitude to the Government for its proctive and prompt action in ensuring safe return of their wards. However, a number of students preferred to condemn and criticize the Indian government and embassy in Ukraine levying a barrage of allegations that they had received little or no support from the government officials during the crisis and were left high and dry to fend for self. Many videos on the social media have been circulated levying allegations and television visuals are available with students slamming the welcome gestures of the union ministers and officials at the India Gandhi International Airport, refusing to accept flowers or simply ignoring their presence at the reception. Some such common grievances and complaints of students are briefly summarized as under:
Many videos and panic messages uploaded by the Indian students were taking rounds on the social media which were promptly picked up by the opposition leaders, a section of media and traditional intellectuals/liberals to make a case against the alleged government insensitivity and inaptitude. One student was noticed saying that the mistakes of the government will be justified in future through a movie by a particular celebrity on evacuating Indians from Ukraine. Another student told media persons that it was wrong to call it “evacuation” when the flights brought them from a safe country. Yet another student said that rather than free flights they needed assistance within Ukraine to reach border from Kharkiv and Sumy. Some students who were stranded in Sumy for a considerable period complained that the embassy officials did not respond to SOS calls; they had to eat stale food and walk for long distances in sub-zero temperatures. Even charges were made by some that the government took the needful action only after a student was killed in Sumy.
One student flown back home in Bangalore from Hungary lamented that the Indian government had no guts to step foot in Ukraine and at the same time acknowledged that his group was able to safely reach Hungary border only due to Indian flag attached to the bus. Some videos on the social media depicted some of the student(s) being beaten, kicked and refused boarding trains. Some students lodged in a transit shelter complained that the embassy officials asked them to clean wash rooms. One evacuee girl student from Dehradun, Uttarakhand was found complaining that the government official did not make arrangement for her inland travel and she had to spend her own money to reach home after landing at Mumbai airport. Some reports also came where fake video was purportedly made and circulated on social media to malign the efforts of the government. Needless to mention, the electronic and print media published numerous such stories, some appreciating the efforts of the government for the safe evacuation of the Indian nationals while others criticizing the government for the alleged failure and inadequacy.
First and foremost fact that all such students and their families, opposition politicians, a particular section of media and liberals must understand that seeking education abroad was a personal choice made by the individual students and their family, and decision to this effect was independently taken by them with the government having no role in that at any stage. Many such students pursue professional courses abroad, particularly in the Western countries, with a hope and aspiration for good earnings and better quality of life. There is nothing wrong in having ambition and making such personal choice as everyone has freedom to choose what life best suits to him/her. However, in such eventuality, if any unforeseen situation or crisis precipitates in the host country, how far is it fair to blame the Indian government for this nemesis when the latter is in no way responsible for this situation? and have done their best feasible efforts to safely bring back everyone home. As against the Indian government’s tireless efforts for a safe and prompt return of all citizens in crisis, a comparison is available for anyone to see how the powerful and resourceful countries of the world, including the US, have responded to their citizens in similar situation.
When some of the students complain that only one advisory was issued by the Indian embassy and they did not receive any guidance or assistance from the Indian officials, it simply, and simultaneously, shows their ignorance and arrogance. Since 15 February 2022, when the first advisory was issued, the Indian embassy had regularly published requisite information and advisories on almost day to day basis and all such links are available on the home page itself of the embassy website. While cribbing and complaining, one also needs to consider the resources and constraints under which an embassy functions; besides, when the country is under invasion, the air space has been closed and martial law imposed with severe restrictions on civil movement, the communication and scope of physical assistance gets even more difficult. According to reports, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs control room alone had received over 12,400 emergency calls and 9,000 e-mails by 6 March, which do not include numerous similar communications received directly by the embassy staff.
Many students after return have complained that they did not receive any help from the Indian officials in travel across the Ukraine border. Also they had to struggle for themselves at all points and were even pushed or denied boarding on trains despite having valid tickets. The available data suggest that about 4,000 Indian nationals, mostly students, had crossed Ukraine border before 24 February after the issue of the first advisory on 15 February 2022, a wise step indeed taken by these individuals. The panic and pandemonium started after the war broke, air space closed and the civil movement was severely restricted in the eastern parts of Ukraine. In this situation, students were constantly advised through advisories and general instruction including frequently asked queries in regard to their safety, travel, food, water and other necessities; hence expecting that each student will be individually attended and assisted in the war torn country is a far-fetched demand/expectation. After all nearly 600 students stuck up in Sumy were rescued through special humanitarian corridor on 10 March by officials only, and brought to Rzeszow airport in Poland in 13 buses. Even the most powerful and resourceful country like US had not guaranteed in-country transportation or individual assistance of any kind to their nationals. According to their standing instructions, people will be provided transportation in the neighbouring country or a safe location in the same country away from crisis and person shall have to pay all cost including transit boarding, lodging without any guarantees.
Some of students were found bitter due to the alleged mistreatment by the ground officials of Ukraine and neighbouring countries at border, particularly in Poland. This included denial of boarding on trains, and instances of kicking/thrashing or even racial discrimination in some cases. Such instances may indeed be true under tense situations and it is difficult to strictly regulate or control individual behavior and reaction of the ground staff in the respective countries when hundreds of thousand people of different ethnicity and citizenship were trying to cross border at the same time. On their part, the senior officials of GOI and Indian embassy had been in touch with concerned authorities of Ukraine and other countries and even four union ministers were supervising it on the ground. The embassy advisory clearly said that Indian nationals (mostly students) shall take transit shelter in Western cities of Ukraine, be patient and keep in touch with officials through emergency and help lines and proceed to border only after necessary coordination is made. However, it appears that a large number of students panicked and made headway to cross the border without necessary liaison. Even Polish authorities acknowledged that certain issues were bound to crop up when nearly five hundred thousand Ukrainians and other foreigners were trying to cross borders with Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia and the need of hour was to maintain discipline and calm. Even US citizens have reported wait up to two days at the border.
A group of students complained that the transit accommodation/shelter provided to them was not of the requisite standard and they were even asked by the embassy officials to clean the washrooms/toilets themselves. Reportedly, none of them volunteered for considering it a menial job; then the officials coerced them by telling that those who will voluntarily do it will get priority in evacuation. The same students also complained about the quality of food, water and other amenities. Obviously, while seeking facilities of high standard as right, they did not bother to also think about the resources and constraints of the attending officials in a crisis situation where hundreds of thousand others of different nationalities too were competing for the similar needs. In fact, the embassy officials had already anticipated such constraints and advised all Indian nationals/students on 26 February itself to maintain calm and be patient with whatever food, water and amenities are available in transit. Clearly, the modern education might guarantee a lucrative job for good earning but does not inculcate character, moral and ethics as required for a good human being else what is wrong if one cleans the washroom/toilet after use and bear with the temporary inconvenience in food and other amenities of the personal choice.
Many students were angry that they did not need free travel to India but the government should have picked them from their locations in Ukraine. One student was seen condemning the government that the latter didn’t have guts to get down in Ukraine while the other argued that the use of the term “evacuation” is misleading because they were actually transported from safe territories in the neighbouring countries. One cannot help but pray for the wisdom of these insightful and imaginative students back home. In a country where the US and many European countries had even temporarily stopped or shifted their embassy function and staff in anticipation of war to safer locations in the Western Ukraine simultaneously asking their nationals to go to safe locations through own volition, the ignorant or indignant Indian students were daring GOI to physically operate in restricted areas of a war-torn country. There is no doubt that many of these students had faced hardship in terms of long walks for hours, had to wait for long at the border posts, had to consume inadequate or even stale food and water for some time, and some even received ill-treatment from the foreign officials. But such hardship and inconveniences are bound to occur everywhere in a catastrophic situations like outbreak of war or natural disaster, Therefore, one should learn to endure patiently in such situation rather than condemning or blaming own nation and government, which are in no way responsible for this nemesis.
Indian Students Studying Abroad (Ukraine)
Although the issue is not directly related but the aforesaid unbecoming conduct of some students during the crisis invited this author’s attention to have more insight into their professional education and performance. The evacuation of the Indian students during the current Ukraine-Russia War and their conduct back home also demands the examination of the efficacy of the professional education abroad. The available data and trends suggest that a large number of the Indian students go for study abroad particularly in pursuance of professional education in the medical discipline. The majority of students stuck up in Ukraine were in fact pursuing courses in medicine only. Although the medical education system in India is one of the largest in the world, but due to adverse ratio in the number of aspirants and total seats available as also stringent qualifying standards and cost of education, a large number of the candidates do not get seats in any Indian medical college. According to a reply given by the Minister of State in the External Affairs Ministry, the low admission cost and less demanding admission requirements continue to be the chief reasons for the Indian students opting out for the foreign countries like Ukraine, China, Russia, etc.
The available data suggests that there has been a tremendous growth in terms of the number of medical colleges and seats in India during the last one decade. The total number of the government and private medical colleges was 334 in the year 2010-11, which has grown to 562 by the end the year 2020-21 – a record over 68 percent increase in just ten years. During the same period, the total number of the medical seats at the under graduate level have also increased from 41,500 to 86,649, and at the post graduation level from 21,100 to 42,015, nearly double growth in number in each case. However, despite this large scale expansion, a wide gap continues to exist between the total number of seats available and aspirants desirous to secure medical education. A crucial factor leading to a high cost of medical education in India has been the mushrooming of private medical colleges without uniformly enforceable fee structure and allied expenses, also one of the chief reasons why many students seek admissions in foreign universities offering low overall costs compared to the Indian institutions; the other important reason is of course the not so demanding admission requirements as also quoted by the Union Minister.
Consequently, despite the aforesaid expansion, thousands of students seek admission in foreign universities every year. Although such admissions have been sought in a large number of the foreign countries, however, more popular destinations countries are China, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belize, Bulgaria, Georgia, Saint Kits & Nevis, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Mauritius, Philippines, Tajikistan, Romania and United Arab Emirate. According to the US sponsored Medical Tourism Index (MTI) 2020-21, India ranks at 10th position in the list of forty-six destinations and enjoys 6th spot in terms of the quality of facilities and services listed in the aforesaid index, taking into account the overall country environment, medical tourism attractiveness, healthcare costs, and quality of the medical facilities and services. What is interesting to note is that despite such an evaluation made in the West, more developed European countries like France, Germany and Italy are ranked below India and among the three most sought after destinations, namely China, Russia and Ukraine, the former two are listed at the serial no. 33 and 41 respectively and Ukraine does not find a place in the MTI list of fourty-six countries.
As per the existing mandate, any candidate willing to get a medical seat needs to compete for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and any student desirous of seeking education abroad on or after 2018 is mandatorily required to qualify in NEET. This condition was not applicable for the students who moved abroad for the medical education before this date. However, with the exception of five countries, namely US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all other students who obtain medical education in any other country and wish to practice medicine in India, are required to qualify Foreign Medical Graduate Examination (FMGE) conducted by the National Board of Examination (NBE). The data compiled by the NBE over the years suggest that the pass percentage of the medical degree holders abroad in this examination has been below 20 percent on average which is quite alarming and a growing cause of concern raising doubts on the efficacy of the medical education abroad. Similar data from Ukraine (2015-18) is even more disappointing which suggests that out of total 8,130 students taking FMGE, only 1,223 could clear it which works out to only about 15% passed candidates. Reportedly, many of these medical degree holders repeatedly fail to qualify FMGE. Thus these results pose a big question mark on the efficacy of medical education in Ukraine and many other countries.
While so condemning and criticizing own government’s rescue efforts, the ungrateful students conveniently forgot that the choice to go to Ukraine for study was made by them and the Indian government was in no way responsible for the crisis and consequent emergent situation faced by them in that country. It was as a pure humanitarian gesture and cause driven by which the government took proactive and prompt measures for evacuation, detailed its senior ministers in the neighbouring countries to coordinate and facilitate the evacuation process and all Indian nationals and students were airlifted back home in a swift operation. As against this, most other countries including the US, UK, Germany, Netherland, China, Japan, South Korea, and many others, lagged behind in response and even asked their citizens to leave Ukraine under own arrangements. In fact, the US President Biden had asked all Americans as early as on 11 February to leave Ukraine within 48 hours ruling out any possibility of dispatching any teams to rescue American citizens. On the other hand, after the Indian Prime Minister spoke to the heads of states of Russia and Ukraine, vehicles pasted with Indian tricolor and individuals carrying Indian national flag were given safe passage everywhere. Ungrateful Indian students and their families should feel obligated to the national government for prompt and safe evacuation rather than claiming it as their right and blaming the government for inconvenience incurred, if any.
More by : Dr. Jaipal Singh