Most non-government organisations (NGOs) based in Udhampur see shades of jazia (Mughal era's oppressive tax on non-Muslims) in the 12.5% service tax that the state government has imposed on pilgrims going to the Vaishno Devi shrine by helicopter (operating between Katra and Sanjhi Chhat).
The NGOs want the tax rolled back. Even Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) is ready with a representation stating that the air tickets to pilgrims don't fall in the category of service. Sarita Parihar, vice-president of Indian Democratic Human Rights Organisation, one of the NGOs to refer to this tax as "jazia", said it had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus and more than 1 crore people who visit the holy place each year.
Parvesh Kumar and Anil Paba of another NGO, Udhampur Development Council, argue that the Jammu region's economy is dependent majorly on this pilgrimage, and the state finance ministry decision is likely to upset it. "Instead of giving more facilities to pilgrims, they tax them. "The shrine board's helicopter service for the pilgrims is extremely low-cost as of now, but service tax is bound to increase the fare, which will be bad for the disabled pilgrims who are poor but need to get to the shrine," said Kumar.
A pilgrim who visits the shrine on the first day of every month said the state government was giving subsidy to the Haj pilgrims but taxing devotees coming to a shrine of another faith. "Where will it leave the ailing poor devotees who are too weak to walk?" he added. Every day, an average of 1,000 people - the aged, infirm and children - who can't trek 26 kilometres to the cave shrine from Katra depend on the helicopter.
Chopper firms hike charges
After the government imposed the tax and the shrine board implemented it, both helicopter companies - Global Vectra and Himalayan Heli - operating from the pilgrim zone raised the ticket price. One-way fare from Katra to Sanjhi Chat is up from Rs 1,039 to Rs 1,170 while the cost of return ticket has increased from Rs 2,078 to Rs 2,340.
"The shrine board's helicopter service for the pilgrims is extremely low-cost as of now, but service tax is bound to increase the fare, which will be bad for the poor pilgrims who are aged and infirm," said Parvesh Kumar, an NGO activist.