KOCHI: Joy, relief and solace. The words summed up the mood of 359 Keralites who arrived from Abu Dhabi and Dubai under 'Vande Bharat Mission', the biggest evacuation of Indians after the Gulf war, began on Thursday.
The Air India Express flights touched down with 177 and 182 passengers at the Kochi and Karipur airports respectively at 10.10 pm and 10.35 pm.
The Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports witnessed emotional scenes as the passengers held the Tricolour in hands, with their teary eyes reflecting the satisfaction of getting back to the homeland after weeks of uncertainty.
"Proud Indians holding Tirangaa as they return home in a difficult time," the Consulate General of India-Dubai tweeted with photos. Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor oversaw the repatriation proceedings at the Abu Dhabi airport.
The first batch of passengers who arrived include pregnant women (44 in Kochi and 19 in Karipur), those with medical emergencies (16 and 51), persons whose visas have expired, those who lost their jobs, among others.
"A big contingent of the medical team was kept ready at both Kochi and Karipur airports. Even if there was a medical emergency like delivery on arrival, the doctors and other healthcare workers were ready," said V S Sunil Kumar, the minister in charge of containing the Covid spread in Ernakulam district.
Passengers who landed at the Kochi airport were taken to the hostel rooms of Rajagiri and SCMS colleges, where institutional quarantine facilities have been set up for maximum two-week isolation.
Special taxis were arranged for pregnant women, those above 75 years and children below 10 years who all left straight for their homes straight from the airport, others were taken to the college hostels in KSRTC buses.
They will observe institutional quarantine for 14 days (seven days for those tested and found COVID negative).
"We are providing free WiFi, food from our canteen, three newspapers in 200-odd rooms in our two engineering colleges and 66 rooms in our management school," said SCMS group director Pramod P Thevannoor.
For Kerala, the arrival of NRKs marks a big challenge.
The state government should ensure that the virus does not spread due to the repatriation as imported cases and their contacts caused much of the virus spread in the state so far.
Further, many of them are returning from the Gulf after losing their jobs.
If NORKA-Roots registration is any indication, more than 60,000 persons who lost their jobs have expressed interest to return to their home state, marking perhaps the beginning of the end of Kerala's much-touted 'remittance economy'.
"The only way forward for Kerala is to revive its agriculture and industry. We've relied too much on high mass consumption for too long without other stages of development. It can't go further," said K V Joseph, an economist.