The Ministry of Civil Aviation’s website proudly lists the arrival of passengers and flights under the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM). Over 56 lakh passengers have made it to or from India under the VBM, using various modes, such as chartered flights, ships and flights operated by Air India. Over 17.5 lakh passengers have been flown in on flights operated by the Air India group. VBM, which calls itself an evacuation mission, is now into its tenth edition. But the term “evacuation” mission has been widely questioned.
It has been over a year since the last scheduled international commercial flight landed in India. As the world headed into a lockdown, countries across the world started deploying their own aircraft or contracting airlines to operate flights to evacuate their citizens. VBM was India’s mission to evacuate citizens from across the world who wanted to return to India. The initial phases saw registrations through local embassies / high commissions or consulates followed by the schedules being made available for online booking.
The United States was one of the first to object to the scheme, stating that commercial flights were being operated without reciprocal benefits under the guise of evacuation flights. India then moved to a system called “Air bubbles”, with 27 such bubbles now in place.
In normal times, flights between two countries are governed by an Air Services Agreement (ASA), but the Covid pandemic has led to suspension of all such agreements and instead specific-period agreements, with flights or seats far lower than usually allowed, are in place.