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Government wants to end rising Haj subsidy

In a move that is bound to be opposed bitterly, the government has set in motion a proposal aimed at phasing out the subsidy for Haj pilgrims, which worked out to Rs 826 crore in 2008. Jayanth Jacob reports. Heavy burden

india Updated: Apr 10, 2010 02:53 IST
Jayanth Jacob

In a move that is bound to be opposed bitterly, the government has set in motion a proposal aimed at phasing out the subsidy for Haj pilgrims, which worked out to Rs 826 crore in 2008.

A note for cabinet made by the Ministry of External Affairs, the nodal agency for Haj, has been sent to stakeholder ministries such as civil aviation, finance and minority affairs for their response.

The note proposes to cut the number of pilgrims being sent on subsidised airfare by 10 per cent every year.

Over 1.60 lakh Indians made the Haj pilgrimage — to Mecca, Medina and Mina in Saudi Arabia — in 2009. The government subsidised the trip for 1.15 lakh who went through the Haj committee.

The rest went on their own using private tour operators.

The government subsidises the airfare, which has been rising, pushing up the subsidy bill from Rs 367 crore in 2006 to Rs 390 crore in 2007 to Rs 826 in 2008.

“The Government is striving to reduce such expenditu-re,” minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor told Lok Sabha last year.

Around that time the airfare chargeable — over the subsidised amount — was raised from Rs 12,000 per person to Rs 16,000.

And now, the move to do away with it completely, but in a staggered fashion.

“This proposal of doing away with Haj subsidy is being discussed at the stakeholders level,” said a senior official, adding, “Other than this, the government also has many ideas to address the issue of airfare subsidy.”

There have been some cost-cutting initiatives such as the one suggested by Rajya Sabha deputy chairman K Rahman Khan and some Muslim MPs in 2008, urging the government to follow the Malyasian model.

The Malaysian Tabung Haji involves investment in an “Islamic, Shariat-compliant” way from the prospective pilgrims. They put in whatever amount they can afford in a kitty for a period of time. And they can withdraw the money whenever they want to go for Haj.

But the new proposal will not be acceptable to many.

“That’s the wrong way of looking at making Haj efficient,” said S.Q.R. Ilyasi, spokesperson of the All India Personal Law Board. He argued that the airfare subsidy was actually used to subsidize Air India. The amount can be drastically cut if private airlines are allowed to fly subsidized pilgrims.

Abdus Sattar, minority affairs minister in West Bengal, wants more transparency in the subsidy system. “The state Haj committees are kept in the dark. We have been taking up this issue at the Central Haj Committee.”

Others asked the government to stay away from sensitive issues. “Why doesn’t the government look at ways to improve Haj facilities rather than think of something that’s politically so sensitive,” asked Anwar Ali, Rajya Sabha MP.