Observing Haj pilgrimage wasn't a “commercial venture” for private tour operators (PTO), the Supreme Court on Monday told the government that it must give priority to women while selecting the eligible PTOs.
A bench of justice Aftab Alam and justice Ranjana Prakash Desai told attorney general GE Vahanvati: “In case husband and wife run separate PTOs and both qualify, the wife should be given priority.” The bench also reserved its orders on Centre's Haj policy that arose while the court was hearing government appeal against Bombay high court verdict directing it to allocate more seats to PTOs.
Subsequent to moving SC the government also framed new Haj policy that seeks to streamline the process of selecting PTOs and also provides an opportunity to new operators. Some of the guidelines include giving licence to either one of the spouses in case both are operators, raising the criterion of yearly turnover from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore and securing a refundable deposit of Rs 25 lakh from the selected PTO. The government has also made it mandatory for every PTO to operate from a 250 square feet of office area.
In wake of several objections filed by PTOs from various states the bench said: “This (Haj pilgrimage) is not an apple pie and we are not sitting here to give you one bite or two. Our concern is the pilgrim and not your business.
You may be in the business and you may not. It is not a commercial contract by the government. This court has said that even in matters of contract public interest must outweigh private interest."
Haj pilgrimage has become a thriving business for tour operators.
Around 900 PTOs are selected each year to facilitate the travel of around 45,000 hajis. Despite heavy government subsidy PTOs charge between Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 1.50 lakh from every pilgrim.