The Supreme Court on Monday allowed the Centre to extend the facility of subsidy to Haj pilgrims and monetary and other logistic support to Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims for this year.
A Bench headed by Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan passed the interim order after Solicitor General GE Vahanvati submitted that it was necessary to extend the September 2006 order in this regard as there was very little time to make necessary arrangements for the pilgrims undertaking these pilgrimages.
Last year’s order related only to Haj but on the Centre’s request, the court extended it to Kailash Mansarivar Yatra as well.
The Allahabad High Court had on August 25, 2006 restrained the government from giving financial subsidy to Haj Yatra or other pilgrimage of any community except for making arrangements for law and order and safety of pilgrims.
On the Centre challenging the High Court’s order, the apex court had “in view of peculiar difficulties pointed out” lifted the stay on September 18 last year and permitted subsidy only for Haj 2006-II. About 1.50 lakh pilgrims are expected to go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage this year.
The Centre submitted that Kailash Mansarovar Yatra has been fixed in consultation with the Chinese authorities and would commence in the first week of June 2007.
It pointed out that the Government through MEA pays Rs. 3250 per pilgrim to Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) to partially offset the expenditure incurred by KMVN towards logistical arrangements for the pilgrims. Unless an early decision is taken to pay Rs. 3250 per pilgrim to KMVN, it would create difficulties, it said.
Similarly, negotiations for Haj pilgrimage 2007, scheduled to take place in December, has also commenced and unless the position regarding subsidy was clear, it would be difficult for the Government to discuss air transport arrangements with Air-India and Saudi Arabian Airlines, it said.
An expert group on Haj operations had been constituted to look into all issues including logistics and airfare and give a report, the Centre said adding it was also examining various measures to reform the existing system of management of Haj pilgrimage.
The Centre also pointed out that despite the apex court asking the High Court to expeditiously decide the matter before Haj-2007, the case is still hanging fire. Now it has been placed before a new Bench on May 9 after one of the Judges hearing the case recused himself.
Maintaining that granting assistance for pilgrimage is a matter of policy, the Centre has been contending that “it is not within the province of the courts to interfere with the policy decision unless it is contrary to any statute or any provision of the Constitution.”
Brushing aside the charge that Haj subsidy was against secularism, the Centre defended it on the ground that such financial assistance was being given to people of other religions as well.