India has embarked on a "massive" operation calling up passenger jets and naval ships to bring back some of the hundreds of thousands of its nationals stuck abroad due to coronavirus restrictions, the government said Tuesday.

India banned all incoming international flights in late March as it imposed one of the world's strictest virus lockdowns, leaving vast numbers of workers and students stranded.

Two ships were steaming towards the Maldives' capital Male to evacuate some 1,000 citizens from Friday, the navy said in a statement late Tuesday.

A defence spokesman told AFP a third vessel was heading to the United Arab Emirates -- home to a 3.3-million-strong Indian community, who make up around 30 percent of the Gulf state's population.

A government statement said repatriation flights would start bringing nationals home from Thursday, and that Indian embassies and high commissions were preparing lists of "distressed Indian citizens".

But to the anger of some of those abroad, the evacuees will have to pay for their passage, the statement said, and spend 14 days in quarantine on arrival.

"COVID test would be done after 14 days and further action would be taken according to health protocols," it added.

The consulate in Dubai said that it alone had received almost 200,000 applications, appealing on Twitter for "patience and cooperation" as India undertakes the "massive task" of repatriation.

The oil-rich Gulf is reliant on the cheap labour of millions of foreigners -- mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka -- many of whom live in squalid camps far from the region's showy skyscrapers and malls.

But coronavirus and the devastating economic impact of the pandemic has left many workers sick and others unemployed, unpaid and at the mercy of sometimes unscrupulous employers.

It has also blown a large hole in remittances sent back to India from its workers abroad, which totalled almost $80 billion in 2018, according to the World Bank.

India banned all incoming international flights in March as it imposed one of the world's strictest coronavirus lockdowns
India banned all incoming international flights in March as it imposed one of the world's strictest coronavirus lockdowns AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN

According to the civil aviation ministry, around 14,800 people will be taken back on 64 flights from 12 countries, with the first leaving the UAE and Qatar on Thursday.

Other flights will leave Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington.

The flights will bring an average of 2,000 people back to various Indian destinations every day for a week, according to the foreign ministry.

So far some 20,000 Indians in the US have signed up for the evacuations, The Times of India reported.

But some Indians said they would not be able to pay for their homeward journeys and pleaded with the government for help.

"I request govt to take all of us at no charge during this crisis situation as we are all struggling here due to prolonged lockdown," tourist Sadhana Srivastava tweeted from Dubai.

"I'm homeless now after I lost my job in March, please take me to India or else I will be in a big trouble here in Dubai, please help me sir," Saroj K Swain wrote on Twitter.

The UAE has been the most vocal among Gulf countries in demanding governments take workers back, with almost 23,000 having left as of April 20.

But New Delhi had until now refused to cooperate, balking at the logistical and safety nightmare of repatriating and quarantining returning citizens.

India had earlier evacuated some 2,500 Indians from China, Japan, Iran and Italy before banning international and domestic travel.

India, the world's second-most populous nation with 1.3 billion people, on Tuesday reported 46,433 cases of the infectious disease and 1,568 deaths.

It was the biggest single-day jump with 3,900 new infections and 195 deaths in the last 24 hours.