Evidence lending credibility to allegations of bribery scandals in organisation of Haj has surfaced from within. A ministry of external affairs (MEA) communication to India’s consul-general in Jeddah, relating to Haj arrangements last year, reveals what could be routine corrupt practices in selecting service-providers.
The MEA is the controlling ministry for Haj affairs, while the consulate-general in Jeddah is the key agency for arrangements. This year, Haj is due in October.
Indians form one of the largest pilgrim groups for the journey to Islam’s holiest shrine.
Pilgrim services — such as hospitality, meals, transport and religious guides — during the 15-day religious jaunt in Saudi Arabia spawns an approximately R1,200-crore market.
Despite a ban by the Saudi government, plum contracts to service-providers are handed largely through fly-by-night agents. Bids, which ensure transparency, are not called for.
In a letter pointing to these irregularities last year, Anil Trigunayat, then joint secretary in charge of Haj, stated: “Saudi police had raided and arrested agents working for Indian Haj mission from the gates of our office, which is serious and dilutes the sanctity of the office.”
The internal communication chided the Indian consul-general, Sayeed Ahmed Baba, for not reporting these developments to the MEA.
This year, several Saudi service-providers denied contracts have written to the PM, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. One of them, H.A. Banoun, told HT the consul-general’s office awarded most contracts to a select group. The MEA communiqué also talked about granting of contracts for 50,000 of the 120,000 dwelling units to a single agent. “Such a monopolistic position leads to casting of aspersions on our offices,” the MEA letter said.
Asked why bids are not called, consul-general Baba said, "Advertisements are put out in newspapers with rates fixed by us. This way we can keep rates of various services low."
However, this explanation goes against well-established norms. The Competition Commission of India, the government's anti-monopoly panel, recommends broad-based competition through open bids to ensure transparency and efficiency in public projects.