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Statement by EAM in the Lok Sabha on Indians Stranded in Iran due to COVID-19 (March 12, 2020)

March 13, 2020

DR. SUBRAHMANYAM JAISHANKAR: Sir, I rise to apprise this august House of some recent developments pertaining to Indians stranded in Iran as a result of the Corona virus situation. …(Interruptions) Before I come to the Iran situation, kindly allow me to describe the larger global landscape with respect to Corona virus and our approach in responding to this challenge.

As all hon. Members are aware, the global spread of Corona virus is now real and serious. Yesterday, the WHO declared it as a pandemic. As a country whose citizens are spread across the world, this is a matter of utmost concern. At the same time, it is absolutely essential that we react responsibly and soberly. What we say and what we do should address problems, not spread panic. It is natural that there would be situations of different degrees of gravity in different parts of the world. As a Government, we will assess these in terms of their urgency and seriousness, and respond accordingly.

As the House would have noted, where specific interventions are required as in the case of Wuhan in China, the Diamond Princess crew in Japan or now the pilgrims in Iran we will take necessary action. But these are exceptional situations that require exceptional response. At this time, travel in itself is not recommended as it only heightens risks. Where communities are understandably anxious, we should reassure them and encourage the observance of globally recognized precautions and procedures. An excessive sense of alarm would only be to the detriment of those who are really in need.

Let me now turn to the issue of Iran. As per available information, there are above 6,000 Indian nationals in various provinces of Iran. These include 1,100 pilgrims mainly from the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir, and the State of Maharashtra; nearly 300 students primarily from the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir; about 1,000 fishermen from the States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat; and others who are on longer-term stay visas in Iran for pursuing their livelihood and religious studies.

As the Government started receiving information about the spike in Corona virus 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 are naturally reaching out immediately to Indian nationals in Iran and ascertaining 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 had 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 sequence 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 residency also increases the risks of exposure. Age is also a factor to be taken into account. As their welfare is being currently addressed, we are now focusing on Indian students. Many of them are studying medicine and are fully aware of the precautions to be taken in this difficult situation. The Embassy is in regular contact with them as a group. Our understanding is that 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 focused efforts for the safe return of the stranded Indians. Given the scale of COVID-19 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 were received in India on 7 March. These were tested and 58 Indian pilgrims (25 men, 31 women and two children), who tested negative, were repatriated in IAF C-17 special flight on 10 March. We have also received samples of 529 more Indians on this flight which have been tested in National Institute of Virology, Pune. So far, 299 of them have tested negative. Some mort results are awaited. 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 to facilitate early return. Our Embassy, with cooperation of the Iranian authorities is making arrangements for medical care and monitoring of those who have tested positive.

Our Embassy staff and the medical team are working round- the-clock under difficult conditions to ensure the objective of earliest possible return. The House will appreciate their operational constraints, given that there have been restrictions that have been instituted for public health reasons in Iran. It is not easy to organize transport, accommodation and other logistics. The Iranian system is very stretched but we do appreciate their cooperation in these difficult circumstances.

Hon. Speaker, Sir, I visited Srinagar recently. 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 Government would facilitate the earliest possible return of their children. I would like to share with the House that the sampling of these students has begun today.

Our Consulate in Bandar Abbas are 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. Provision of essential supplies to them is being ensured. As per available information, of them are all in good health. I assure the House that we will continuously track their welfare and respond to their needs.

The House will surely appreciate the few other Nations have done what we have with respect to the COVID-19. The global Coronavirus situation is being monitored on a continuous basis by a Group of Secretaries headed by the Cabinet Secretary and a Group of Ministers, headed by the 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 within the country. The 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.

In many respects, India has been ahead of the curve in taking precautionary measures.

Sir, the House should also be aware that in view of the further spread of Coronavirus, the Government decided yesterday to take more stringent measures in regard to international travel. The reason for this is obvious. All the cases so far have come directly from those who have a travel history. In doing so, we are very clear that we will do whatever we must to ensure that the spread of Coronavirus is restricted and that the health security of India is ensured.

Let me spell out some of the measures that the Group of Ministers at a meeting yesterday approved. They will come into effect at 12:00 GMT on 13th March at the port of departure. These measures include: one, all existing visas, except diplomatic, official, UN and International Organisations, employment, project visas, stand suspended till 15th April, 2020; two, visa free travel facility granted to OCI card holders has also been kept in abeyance till 15th April, 2020; and three, all incoming travellers, including Indian nationals, arriving from or having visited China, Italy, Iran, Republic of Korea, France, Spain and Germany after 15th February shall be quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days. It was also decided that any foreign national who intends to travel to India for compelling reasons may contact the nearest Indian Mission. Indian nationals are strongly advised to avoid all non-essential travel abroad. On their return, they can be subjected to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. International traffic through land borders will be restricted to designated checkpoints with robust screening facilities. These will be notified separately by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Sir, the situation in Italy is now emerging as a cause of great concern. I would like to share with the hon. Members that steps in this regard have already been initiated. It has been decided to make provision for testing primarily for students and compassionate cases in Italy and collect samples for testing. A medical team is being sent there from India. Those tested negative will be allowed to travel and will be quarantined on arrival in India for 14 days. The challenge is growing by the day in Europe and we will respond accordingly. We have appointed in the Ministry of External Affairs a senior official to coordinate our Coronavirus response internationally. A nodal office is being established to speedily process requests for assistance that are naturally expected to increase from different parts of the world. There will be some pressing or some unusual situations and we recognise that and we will respond to that. The details of the nodal office will be made available very soon.

Hon. Speaker, Sir, I am confident that the hon. Members of this House will join me in commending the efforts of our medical teams, the officials of the Indian Embassy and Consulates, the Air Force crew, the Air India crew and all those who in India are working tirelessly and selflessly to ensure that our people in Iran and other countries are safe, and can return expeditiously. The Coronavirus challenge will require a focused and sustained effort on our part and we will keep the House apprised of developments.

Finally, I would like to strongly emphasise that the Government remains fully committed towards the welfare of our nationals in any part of the world as well as ensuring the security and safety of our homeland. This has been the hallmark of our foreign policy.

(ends)

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