The Union government has set up a panel to review the subsidy given for the annual Haj — the last pilgrimage was four months ago — to the Muslim holy cities in Saudi Arabia.
The subsidy, which covers the cost of air tickets, has been a divisive subject. Though every pilgrim travelling from India does not use the subsidy, the facility is often held up as an example of Muslim appeasement by the government. In 2012, the Supreme Court directed the government to phase out the subsidy over the next 10 years.
The concession was introduced about 40 years ago to help pilgrims who could not afford air fares. Mufti A Rehman Mili, an expert on the pilgrimage, said till the 1970s most Indian pilgrims sailed from Mumbai to Jeddah. “Only some pilgrims could afford to travel by air. Hajis from all over India would gather in Mumbai and the Musafirkhanas – lodges – and Mumbai was known as ‘Bab-e-Mecca’ (Gateway to Mecca),” said Mili. The pilgrimage’s association with a sea journey meant that the agency that helped pilgrims was called the Port Haj Committee till the 1950s.
Sea travel started fading away when two of three ageing ships that ferried pilgrims were withdrawn from services, forcing more people to travel by air. In 1994, when the shipping services were discontinued, around 5,000 – a fifth of the pilgrims — took a ship.
Air fares were expensive and, in response to demands for help, the government introduced the subsidy to cover the cost of air tickets. “The Indira Gandhi government decided that pilgrims will continue to pay what would have been the ship fare. Air India (the national carrier) was paid to fly the pilgrims,” said Mili.
It is estimated that the subsidy per pilgrim is between Rs20,000 and Rs25,000 — assuming that the return air fare to Jeddah costs Rs 42,000-Rs46,000. Recent reports said the airline gets around Rs700 crore annually from the government for the services. According to Mili, the subsidy helps the airline more than the pilgrims.
Some Muslims want the subsidy to go. “The government can discontinue it because the Supreme Court has said it should be phased out,” said Salim Ansari, a former member of the Haj Committee of India. “Ordinary Hajis do not get any major benefit from the subsidy.”
In May 2012, when Supreme Court asked the government to phase out the subsidy, the two- judge bench that gave the judgment had quoted the Quran to say that Muslims had to finance the pilgrimage themselves. “The pilgrimage is compulsory only if a person has the wealth to spend on the travel,” said Syed Zahid Ahmed, a finance consultant. “If the subsidy goes it will make the pilgrimage easier for everyone.”
Many are of the opinion that if the tickets are booked in advance — as it can be because pilgrimage plans are made months in advance, if not years — it is possible to buy cheaper air tickets, doing away with the need for a subsidy.
Muslims said instead of the subsidy, the government should ask the Saudi Arabians to increase the Indian quota for the pilgrimage. To manage the number of visitors, Saudi Arabia has created a quota system that allows countries to send pilgrims based on the Muslim population. India has a quota of around 1,20,000 – a 20% increase over the earlier limit. Two-third of the pilgrims go through the Haj Committee, the rest use private tour companies to make their travel arrangements. Maulana Mustkim Azmi, a former member of the Haj Committee, is of the opinion that there should not be a sub-quota for tour operators. “The travel and accommodation arrangements made through the Haj Committee are better and cheaper,” said Azmi who suggested that, instead of relying only on Air India, the Haj Committee should book contracts with other airlines to fly charted flights for pilgrims.