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Project Management 101: India’s Impressive Operation Ganga in Ukraine

India Indian Ukraine Russia War Conflict Map

The Ukraine crisis with Russia has been ongoing since 2014 but the full military action by Russia only happened on 21st February 2022 and this forced a huge refugee crisis and forced all other countries like India & Malaysia to quickly evacuate their citizens & staff from Ukraine before it becomes too late. Image source: Al Jazeera

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Operation Ganga in Summary

A summary of Operation Ganga:-

Operation Ganga was an evacuation mission carried out by the Indian government to rescue its citizens stranded in neighbouring countries during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The citizens were transported from Romania, Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Slovakia to India with assistance from these countries. India maintained a neutral stance during the invasion, not supporting either Russia or Ukraine.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on 26 February 2022 during which among pressing issues, the safety of students was brought up. The first evacuation flight from Bucharest reached New Delhi with 249 nationals at around 2.55am Indian Standard Time (IST) on 27 February. Four union ministers namely – Hardeep Singh Puri, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kiren Rijiju and V.K. Singh were sent the next day to the neighbouring countries to assist in prioritizing coordination with local authorities.

The Indian Air Force and multiple Indian private airlines provided logistical support. Between 24 February and 7 March, the Indian Prime Minister talked to the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin multiple times about the situation, during which among overarching issues, evacuation was conveyed and assistance acknowledged.

India had about 20,000 Indian nationals in Ukraine, out of which just over 18,000 were students. Approximately 16,000 Indian citizens were present in Ukraine at the moment of commencement of Russian invasion. By 5 March, about 18,000 had crossed the border of Ukraine. However emergency evacuation was requested by students still in Ukraine, such as in Sumy.

Following a “Leave Kharkiv Immediately” embassy advisory on 2 March, the Indian Ministry of Defence released a survival advisory for those still in Ukraine and specifically Kharkiv. By 6 March about 16,000 Indians had been flown to India in 76 flights. On 8 March the MEA said that all students in Sumy have been moved facilitated by humanitarian corridors.

(Source: Wikipedia)

This is not the first large-scale evacuation operation that was undertaken by India for its citizens. They have done this several times being able to organise large-scale evacuation from war zone so they already have a template for this Operation Ganga but they need to get things done right.

Operation Ganga Documentary

Watch the inside story of Operation Ganga:-

YouTube player


This is an excellent documentary that showcases the incredible effort to arrange more than 90 special flights close to the war zone and still managed to evacuate more than 22,000 Indians namely students & more than 100 foreign nationals.

Malaysia’s Own Evacuation Story

Although Malaysia did not have to deal with a similar crisis, we still had to rescue our citizens & the embassy staff from a war zone and compared to the Indians, we had a lower number to deal with. Nonetheless it was a crisis management well executed despite at a smaller scale.

The Prime Minister, who ordered the plan to evacuate Malaysians out of Ukraine to be activated, said all 24 Malaysians who registered with the Malaysian Embassy in Ukraine were successfully brought out on Feb 24.

According to him, the last group involved nine Malaysians and two dependents were transported out of Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb 26 by road to Poland.

Today, seven Malaysians including the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Malaysian Embassy in Ukraine Fadhilah Daud, arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) at about 3.06 pm via Qatar Airways flight QR0848.

“We are grateful for the mission’s success as what is happening in Ukraine is worrying but the government did its best to ensure its people in Ukraine are safe,” said Ismail Sabri in a media conference after meeting the seven Malaysians at KLIA.

(Source: TheSun)

One thing that we can be assured of is the capability and the length Malaysian embassy in assisting Malaysians in need of help overseas. As someone who has travelled overseas quite often before the pandemic, I have personally experienced the high quality & personal effort of the Malaysian embassy staff in assisting Malaysians in need. Often, they even arranged small gatherings or events for all Malaysians so that everyone keeps in touch with one another.

India Indian Students Operation Ganga Ukraine

Ukraine & Russia are some of the preferred countries for Indian students namely for medical degrees. The problem is that they are all not studying in the same place thus causing a massive challenge to track their movement, shelter and take care of them. Image source: Indian Express

Operation Ganga Challenges

Operation Ganga is a good case study of effective crisis management which all project managers encounter in every project and there are several reasons for this:-

Scale of Operation

The scale of the operation i.e. evacuating almost 22,000 people from an active war zone is not an easy task due to 2 key reasons namely the danger from the fighting forces and the fact that these people who need to be evacuated were scattered in several cities & far from the safe borders which increases the complexity of coordination to get this done successfully. As a matter of fact that it is a logistics nightmare.

Outside One’s Control

Considering that both Ukraine & Russia have active armed units on the ground & will have their own battle objectives, India had very little say on how & when these armed operations will happen. Even with the assurances from the very top namely Ukraine & Russian Presidents, it is tough to say that the army commanders on the ground have received the instructions & will follow them to the letter.

Risk of Death & Injury

There is a real danger of death & serious injuries – be mindful that evacuation is being coordinated with bombs literally falling on the buildings where these students are taking shelter. One wrong move and if one is at the wrong place, wrong time, it means serious injuries & death. In this conflict, one student died when he went out to buy food during the shelling of the city where he was studying whilst another was wrongly got shot & was seriously injured.

Essense of Time

There is a deadline to make things happen – as there was a serious possibility that the Russian forces would overrun the cities where the students are sheltering or the bombardment will increase, there was a grave need for these students to be evacuated before anyone gets injured or died from this conflict. There was also a concern that many of these students were running out of food & clean water.

India C17 Indian Air Force Transport Plane

One of the key assets that the Indian Government deployed in Operation Ganga is the Indian Air Force’s US-made C17 Globemaster III strategic transport plane. IAF have 11 C17 transport aircraft on active duty and 3 of it was deployed for Operation Ganga in addition to the civilian planes provided by the various Indian-based airlines. Image source: Hindustan Times

Operation Ganga Success Factors

So what makes Operation Ganga successful? There are several factors that attributed to the success namely:-

Strong Leader

As in any crisis management, you need one strong leader who is able to keep things in perspective & uses his experience to get things done. In the centre of this operation, we have the Prime Minister himself taking charge of the evacuation operation with the active participation of key Ministers and this helps to cut down the red tape & ease the coordination between the various ministries, the military & the civilian personnel involved in the operation.

Proper Planning & Execution

Despite the expected chaos, misinformation & things not going as planned in the warzone, there was no confusion at the working levels tasked in this Operation Ganga with the Prime Minister taking charge aided by a dedicated command centre & key with everyone made clear on what they do & when they need to do.

Effective Team Members

To ensure the cooperation of the Governments of the countries bordering Ukraine & fast-tracking visa applications which will be crucial once the students have reached the borders, it was crucial to ensure we have the right people handling the tasks.

In addition to the Prime Minister led command centre, military & embassies already working on the conflict, India also sent 4 ministers – the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri coordinated from Hungary, the Minister of Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia coordinated from Romania, the Minister of Law and Justice Kiren Rijiju coordinated from Slovak Republic and the Minister of State for Civil Aviation Gen (Retd) V.K. Singh coordinated from Poland.

P.s. this is why you don’t appoint any Tom, Dick or Harry to be diplomats.

Continued Risk Management

Even with the huge mobilisation of the task force to assist with the evacuation, the situation on the ground continued to be monitored despite the challenges of getting the right information from a warzone. This was crucial when they were ready to move the students from their shelters & out of the active war zone. The last thing that the team needs is for them to be mistaken as one of the opposing armed forces.

In this manner, one cannot deny that the Indian military working closely with its counterparts in Ukraine & Russia and entrusted to keep the information privileged for the purpose of evacuation would have helped in this situation.

Continued Stakeholder Engagement

The fact that India has a close working relationship with both Ukraine & Russia especially on defence & commerce and has a good diplomatic influence helped to coordinate a rescue operation in a conflict between these countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has direct access to the high leadership of both countries’ governments & remains neutral despite the immense pressure from the US & other European countries to side with Ukraine.

Then sending senior Ministers to each of the countries bordering Ukraine to facilitate the entry of the evacuated students has been the right move as they were able to communicate directly with the leaders of these bordering countries & get their commitment. Special access at the border, waiver of entry visa, special rights for planes to land & temporary shelters were the result of these commitments.

Maximum Use of all Assets

Starting from the embassy in Ukraine kick starts the evacuation operation to the embassies in the countries bordering Ukraine, the NGOs who coordinated the operations on the ground & facilitate transport, food, shelter & other amenities in Ukraine & once the students have safely crossed the border to the military & civilian planes used to evacuate.

Indian India Ukraine Embassy

The late Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, Sushma Swaraj tweeted back in 2017 that even if you are stuck on Mars, Indian Embassy there will help you. This speaks to the confidence of the Indian Government to go all out to assist its citizens and it shows from the various evacuation operations that were undertaken to bring back its citizens stuck overseas due to the pandemic or war. Image source: Twitter

Final Say

Whilst some remote parts of India are stuck in the Stone Age, generally the whole country has progressed both from general administration and its stand in the international arena and all that mainly thanks to the leadership of its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

From a struggling nation that at one point was easily overcome by its neighbours, China & Pakistan to one that is capable to stand on its own against superpowers. India by now is the main naval superpower in the Indian Ocean and basically controls the shipping lanes there. It has also beefed up its defence capability & technology so much so that Pakistan & Chinese is threading with care when dealing with India these days.

Diplomatically India has also been increasing its influence & friendship with both sides of the divide especially with the US, France and their traditional ally & their largest defence supplier, Russia. When Russia faced economic sanctions due to the war with Ukraine, India continued purchasing weapons, oil & others from Russia and this kept Russia’s economy to continue to move.

India’s government is considering a proposal from Russia to use a system developed by the Russian central bank for bilateral payments, according to people with knowledge of the matter, as the Asian nation seeks to buy oil and weapons from the sanctions-hit country.

India is keen to continue bilateral trade because of its dependency on Russian weapons and the prospect of buying cheaper oil as global prices surge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been pushing back against pressure from Western nations, including Australia, by arguing that arms purchases from Russia are needed to counter China’s growing military assertiveness.

(Source: The Sydney Morning Herald)

In the centre is the leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is considered the more capable Prime Minister after perhaps Indira Gandhi. Under him, the country has advanced in defence, space exploration, empowerment of the private sectors and improving infrastructure, especially at the borders with potential conflicts. Unfortunately, not all states are under BJP thus such progress at the Federal level will take time to happen at the state level.

All these factors contributed much to the success of Operation Ganga – from forward-thinking leadership, coordination with other countries all of which India has a strong & good relationship and the good use of technology.

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