Mr Deputy Chairman, Sir, I rise to apprise this august House of some recent developments pertaining to Indians stranded in Iran as a result of the coronavirus situation. The House is already aware of the efforts the government had made to bring back Indians from Wuhan in China by mounting three flights to that city. Thereafter, we also brought back the crew and passengers of a cruise ship off Japan that was affected by coronavirus. These evacuations also included some foreign nationals.
Our focus since has shifted to Iran, in view of the sharp increase of coronavirus in that country. As per available information, there are over 6,000 Indian nationals in various provinces of Iran. These include about 1,100 pilgrims mainly from the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir and the State of Maharashtra; nearly 300 students primarily from… Jammu and Kashmir; about 1,000 fishermen from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat; and others who are on long-term stay in Iran for pursuing their livelihood and religious studies. As the government started receiving information about the spike in coronavirus cases in Iran, as a precautionary measure, direct flights between India and Iran were temporarily suspended with effect from 27 February. Advisories were issued to avoid travel and returning passengers were started to be screened. This is an ongoing exercise. Our Embassy in Tehran and Consulates in Bandar Abbas and Zahidan naturally reached out immediately to Indian nationals in Iran to ascertain their welfare. An advisory was issued asking our nationals to observe appropriate precautions. Emergency contact details of the Indian Mission were put out. Embassy and Consulate officials have been reassuring the Indian nationals and ensuring that they are in good health and have adequate provisions. I mention this as an overall approach, but also with specific reference to the fishermen community whose welfare has been raised with me by a number of hon. members. Given the large number of Indians in Iran, it was natural that we should seek to prioritise their return, taking into account their location and exposure. The initial focus is on visiting pilgrims. Many of them are in Qom, where coronavirus incidence has been strong. The nature of their residency also increases the risks of exposure. Age is also a factor that was taken into account. As their welfare is being addressed, we are now focussing on Indian students. Many of them are studying medicine and are fully aware of the precautions to be taken in this difficult situation… Our understanding is the region where most fishermen are located has not been affected so severely. These factors will guide our approach in the coming days.
Over the last few days, the government has been making focussed efforts for the safe return of the stranded Indians. Given the scale of Covid-19 infection and its pressure on Iran’s own resources, a team of six Indian health officials has been deputed to Iran in order to set up testing and sampling facilities there. The first batch of 108 samples was received in India on 7 March. These were tested and 58 Indian pilgrims (25 men, 31 women and 2 children), who tested negative, were repatriated in special IAF C17 flight on 10th March. We have also received samples of 529 more Indians on this flight which are being tested in National Institute of Virology, Pune. We continue to collect more samples in Tehran and our endeavor is to ensure the earliest possible return of our nationals after appropriate testing and screening. We are working with the Iranian authorities to operate some limited commercial flights for facilitating early return of the remaining Indians after testing them. Our Embassy staff and the medical team are working round-the-clock… to ensure the objective of earliest possible return.
The House will appreciate their operational constraints, given that there are restrictions that have been instituted for public health reasons in Iran. It is not easy to organise transport, accommodation and other logistics. The Iranian system is naturally stretched and we appreciate their cooperation… During my recent visit to Srinagar, I took the initiative to meet parents of some of the students who are in Iran. Their anxiety at this time is completely understandable. I shared with them, in detail, the ground situation and sought their understanding. I assured them that the government would facilitate the earliest possible return of their children.
Our Consulate in Bandar Abbas is in touch with the Indian fishermen who are in southern provinces of Iran, including in cities of Asaalouyeh, Chiruyeh and Kish. Some of them have been visited and others would be soon… As per available information, they are all in good health.
I would like to strongly emphasise that the government remains fully committed towards the safety and welfare of our nationals in any part of the world. This has been the hallmark of our foreign policy. The House will surely appreciate the few other nations have done what we have with respect to Covid-19. The global coronavirus situation is being monitored on a continuous basis by a group of secretaries headed by Cabinet secretary and a Group of Ministers, chaired by minister of health and family welfare. My Ministerial colleague has already apprised the House of measures being taken to control and contain the spread of virus in the country. Hon. Prime Minister himself has reviewed the situation from time to time. We have been regularly issuing travel advisories and visa guidelines that reflect the situation in countries of concern. E-visas and Visa on Arrival have been temporarily suspended in certain cases. Precautionary measures are also being taken on all our land borders as well as air and sea entry points. The situation in Italy is now emerging as a cause of great concern… steps in this regard have already been initiated. The challenge is growing by the day in Europe and we will have to respond accordingly. I am confident that the hon. Members… would join me in commending the efforts of our medical team, the officials of the Indian Embassy and Consulate, the Indian Air Force crew and all those in India who are working tirelessly and selflessly to ensure that our people in Iran are safe and can return expeditiously…
Edited excerpts from Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar’s statement on the Covid-19 situation in Iran and elsewhere, Rajya Sabha, March 11