The first C-17 Globemaster lll of the Indian Air Force was cleared off by the Hindan Air Traffic Control for its relief mission to Bucharest, Romania, the southwestern neighbour of Ukraine carrying essential medicines, winter clothing along with food packets and water bottles on March 2 as part of India’s daring evacuation mission under Operation Ganga for the safe return of Indians, mostly students of the various universities in Ukraine. Three more C-17 Globemaster left for Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.
There were about 20,000 Indians in Ukraine before February 1. After the travel advisory issued by India’s external affairs ministry, approximately 8000 Indians returned home by regular commercial flights from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lviv, Sumy and Odesa.
Unexpectedly, war broke out on February 24 between Russia and Ukraine after a long pause and exchange of words. The Russian armoured brigades with motorised divisions rolled in from three directions and headed for Kyiv. Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihivska were also isolated initially being on the Northern and North-Eastern border and neutralised, but the street battle is still on. The Russian forces were in the outskirts of Kyiv on March 1. The Ukrainian forces are not as strong as the Russian army but were giving strong resistance. The battle will last a few days before Russia declares unilateral ceasefire once Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy steps down or gives assurance that Ukraine will not join NATO and remain an ally of Russia.
Operation Ganga began on February 26 and got a major push on February 28 after a special cabinet meeting by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when Indigo, Spicejet and Air India Express joined the flag carrier Air India (TATA) in operating flights to ensure the fast and safe return of stranded Indians in Ukraine. The IAF was also asked to keep three C-17s on standby to boost the resources. Until March 3, 19 flights landed in New Delhi and Mumbai, and 4000 Indians reached home safely carrying national flags and happily raising slogans ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.
The prime minister established a special cell monitoring the current situation from the warzone. He held talks with the presidents of Russia and Ukraine to ensure the safety of Indian students and provide safe passage to Indian convoys heading west towards Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova. The prime minister has nominated four senior cabinet ministers to Eastern Europe to facilitate the border crossing. A large crowd of all nationals is stranded at the border to cross, awaiting visas and administrative clearance.
Union minister VK Singh has reached Warsaw and was arranging flights from Poland to India carrying Indians evacuated from the warzone. Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri arrived in Budapest to liaise with the Hungary government and establish a staging camp. Union minister Kiren Rijiju was in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, facilitating the evacuation of Indians crossing through Slovakia’s entry points. Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has been given the responsibility of the evacuation of Indians from Bucharest and also to cover Chisinau, the capital of Moldova’s entry points.
The maximum number of flights have come from Bucharest. The MEA spokesperson informed that all evacuation teams were effective and working in harmony with officials of these western neighbours of Ukraine. He confirmed six flights of Air India wide-body aircraft have ferried 1396 nationals home from Bucharest and Budapest. Another two flights of Air India Express and Indigo landed on March 1 late at night bringing another 360 passengers.
Air India has the advantage of flying nonstop from Budapest, Warsaw and Bucharest as it is deploying Boeing 787, a bigger and wide-body aircraft with more capacity compare to Airbus 320/321 or Boeing 737 utilised by Indigo, Spice and AI Express with limited range and less passenger capacity. These flights have one stop either in Kuwait or the UAE. All private airlines have extended full cooperation and dedication and Air India, as usual, leads the campaign.
On March 1, an Indian student was killed in the artillery shelling at the border city of Kharkiv and another was critically injured as they ventured out of shelters. The Indian government decided to incorporate the IAF on March 2 keeping in view the limited capacity of the private airlines. The IAF has a variety of cargo aircraft. It selected C-17 Globemaster for the operation due to its long-range, mission reliability, and heavy-lift capacity. The first flight that took off at 4 am on March 2 for Romania landed in India with 200 students at 9 am on March 3. The second was en route from Budapest and the third C-17 took off from Warsaw back home after delivering relief materials including medicines, warm clothing, tents and solar lights for Indians and Ukrainias affected by the war. The fourth C-17 was still in Slovakia.
C-17 Globemaster is a wonderful flying elephant manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, Boeing. It is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW2000 engines. India acquired 11 C-17 aircraft from the United States in 2011. The aircraft is designed to carry 180 fully-equipped troops or 70 tonnes of Cargo. It can travel 4200 km once fully topped up. It can carry 325 civil passengers with light luggage in case of emergency situation from disaster zone to safe areas. This aircraft can lift a fully-loaded T90 tank to the warzone. Another important feature is that it can land at makeshift /unmetalled runaway.
There are plans to send 26 charter flights to the warzone to ferry the remaining Indians still trapped in Ukraine and heading for borders to cross over to the western neighbours. Operation Ganga is the most active and unique operation conducted by the Indian government among all nations around the world that have their citizens in Ukraine. A country like China has not established any support organisation for its nationals or issued any travel advisories, as a result, the Chinese people were being attacked and harassed by the Ukrainian troops, while buses and vehicles with Indian flags were permitted to proceed towards the western borders.
The US, Germany and Britain have clarified that they are not in a position to evacuate their citizens. Most of the embassies of European nations have closed down in Kyiv but the Indian embassy is still functional. The government has exempted RTPCR tests and vaccination certificates before boarding, but 14-day self-observation is recommended on return to India if not vaccinated.
Earlier, India airlifted 1,70,000 nationals from Kuwait in August/September 1990 before the Desert Storm was launched on Iraq, 4640 Indians were evacuated safely in April 2015 during the Yemen crisis under Operation Rahaat by IAF and 800 Indians were airlifted from Kabul under Operation Devi Shakti in August 2021. The prime minister has promised that India will not leave even a single willing Indian in the warzone. We always stand united in the hour of crisis. Operation Ganga is in full swing. We must salute all the pilots and crews of IAF and especially civil pilots and crew of Air India, Indigo, Spice and AI Express who are evacuating countrymen from the high-risk warzone beyond the call of duty.
-The writer is an Indian Army veteran and a defence analyst. He has keen interest in Geo-strategic affairs and writes regularly on internal and external affairs issues related to India and neighbours. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.