The UPA government's plan to gradually stop financing the Haj pilgrimage is a step in the right direction, several Muslim leaders have said. Their backing is crucial for a clean pullout, without rubbing the community the wrong way.
From the Muslim Personal Law Board and Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind to the Milli Council, influential Muslim lobbies on Saturday said it was time the government pulled out of the Haj business.
"The subsidy has been inconsequential," Rajya Sabha MP and Jamiat leader, Mahmood Madni told Hindustan Times.
About 1,50,000 Indian Muslims flock to Mecca each year for Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam. The government bankrolls the pilgrimage by partly paying the airfare.
Madni said the subsidy actually went in bailing out Air-India, while exposing Muslims to charges of appeasement. So, Muslim leaders want global tenders for airlines so that the lowest bidder gets the job.
A decades-old bilateral treaty between India and Saudi Arabia stipulates only the state carrier will fly pilgrims.
A major gripe is that Air-India's fares are sharply higher than routine fares. Each year, the Cabinet decides how much the Haj Committee, the facilitating agency, should charge as airfare. Last year, passengers were charged Rs. 12,000 each.
Going by last year's subsidy of about Rs. 826 crore, the Air India fare must have been between Rs. 80,000-90,000 per passenger, according to Haj Committee CEO Mohd. Owais.
The current round trip economy fare to Jeddah at present is about Rs. 18,000, a Saudi airline official said.
"Air India's monopoly should be ended," Jama Masjid imam Ahmed Bukhari said.
The state carrier charges higher fares on the ground that it has to pull out planes from regular operations for dedicated Haj travel.
"The Haj Committee should be given three-years' subsidy at one time as seed capital and the subsidy stopped after that," Manzoor Alam, Muslim Personal Law Board member and Milli Council chief, said.