“This is the closest a Muslim can get to God without entering paradise,” said Delhi-based Rabia Ansari, a housewife, explaining why the Haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is so significant.
Yet, plane-loads of India’s 150,000 Haj pilgrims destined for the Islamic holy city will come back complaining as usual, despite India being the only country where the government pays a part of the Haj airfare to make the pilgrimage affordable for people like Ansari.
The first batch of pilgrims boarded planes for Saudi Arabia last Tuesday from New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Kozhikode. Several more batches will follow between now and November 26, when the annual pilgrimage starts.
Thanks to an antiquated Haj model, pilgrims often allege that they are treated shabbily and taken for a ride even with the government bankrolling pilgrims to the tune of Rs 390 crore, often called the Haj subsidy. It is time the authorities overhauled the practice.
It is strongly felt that the subsidy has “harmed” the Muslim community more than it has benefited them. According to many, the subsidy has fuelled allegations of appeasement, giving the community a bad name.
However, a majority of pilgrims opt for government arrangements. The Haj Act, 1959, and a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia require that all such pilgrims fly by state-run Air-India or any other Saudi airline contracted by it.
“A pilgrim has to pay Rs 16,000 now as airfare though Air-India charges Rs 80,000-90,000,” the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Indian Haj Committee, Mohd. Owais, told Hindustan Times.
On scheduled flights, the usual non-Haj fare from New Delhi to Jeddah, the usual port of call for pilgrims, hovers between Rs 18,000 and Rs 25,000, across airlines.
However, Air India jacks up Haj fares on the grounds that it has to stop some regular flights and deploy them for dedicated Haj travel. This is a major grouse with pilgrims, who feel that a major part of the subsidy is used to bail out Air-India. Pilgrims say the money could instead be used for better and more comfortable accommodation, possibly on a long-term lease.
The government is now eyeing a major overhaul of the Haj system. For example, the Haj Committee could get powers to float global tenders for airlines to ferry 100,000 Haj pilgrims from next year, a significant move that could end the state-run carrier’s monopoly in the business, lopping off a major chunk of its revenue.
“We demand that the Haj Committee should be empowered to float the global tenders and set a maximum permissible fare to keep Haj affordable. I am sure many global airlines will be happy to ferry the 100,000 passengers at a cheaper rate,” Imam Ahmed Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid said.
The clamour among many to abolish the Haj subsidy is getting louder. According to Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, the government has in principle agreed to review the subsidy regime in seven years.
Many also cite the Islamic principle that Haj is obligatory only for those who can afford. “The Quran clearly states that Haj is a must only for those who are financially able,” said Abdul Khaleque Madrasi, the vice-rector of leading Islamic school Darul Uloom in Uttar Pradesh’s Deoband.
“After all, we did not demand it in the first place,” said Urdu author Anees Jamiee, who has gone on Haj several times.
“Muslims will continue performing Haj as usual even if you take away the subsidy. It will be no loss. But if you scrap scholarships, that will be a loss,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen MP from Hyderabad, who held a brief on Haj shortcomings during the presidential address at the opening of the United Progressive Alliance government’s current tenure.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had constituted a committee headed by the cabinet secretary to go into the issue of alternative financing options after Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson K. Rahman Khan submitted a report on the issue.
“The Prime Minister is very keen on revamping the model. The Haj subsidy should be replaced with a more robust option,” Rahman Khan said, adding that India could adopt the Malaysian model of Tabung Haji, where each prospective pilgrim contributes for Haj travel to a Shariat-compliant corpus, something like India’s public provident fund.
However, the reforms will require amendments in legislation. “Going by the Prime Minister’s keenness, that should not be a problem,” Owais said.