The Indian civil aviation ministry’s website crashed on Wednesday as panicked citizens abroad rushed to register for a mass repatriation of almost 15,000 nationals from 12 countries on planes and naval ships.
India banned all incoming international flights in late March as it imposed one of the world’s strictest virus lockdowns, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers and students stranded abroad.
Two ships were steaming towards the Maldives to evacuate some 1,000 Indian citizens from Friday while another was headed for the Gulf, according to the navy and the defence ministry.
The first of 64 flights over the next week were due to leave the United Arab Emirates — home to more than three million Indians — and Qatar on Thursday bound for the southern state of Kerala.
In total 26 flights will bring Indians home from the Gulf region, while others will operate from Southeast Asia, Britain and the United States, including in San Francisco and Washington.
Indian media quoted civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri as saying that 200,000 Indians abroad had registered for repatriation and that the final number could be twice that.
His ministry blamed the crashing of its website on “unprecedented traffic” and urged people to check the website of Air India, which is operating the flights, for details.
Kerala is the biggest source of Indians in the Gulf.
OV Mustafa, the director of Norka Roots, a government welfare body for non-resident Keralites, told AFP that the people were “desperate” and in a “panic”.
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“There are about 200,000 people who have registered to go to Kerala from the UAE alone,” he said.
“People are worried about the lack of clarity on the testing procedure. Especially pregnant women. They’re absolutely worried that people, even if they are asymptomatic, might be carriers. It’s a real fear.”