Haj subsidy withdrawn, govt says decision taken to empower minoritiesUpdated: Jan 19, 2018 16:59 IST
The government has withdrawn the subsidy it offers for Haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, from this year, four years ahead of a deadline suggested by the Supreme Court in a 2012 order, and in keeping with its stated philosophy of “empowering” minorities, not “appeasing” them.
The scrapping of the subsidy evoked a strong reaction from many of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance’s rivals. It was announced by minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on Tuesday.
This year’s Haj commences on August 19.
The government does not offer a direct subsidy to pilgrims but bankrolls a part of the total airfare, which is paid directly to airlines, including Air India. This is usually the difference between Haj-season fares determined through tenders and a uniform ticket price fixed for all pilgrims.
The pilgrims pay for their board, lodging, and travel in Saudi Arabia.
In May 2012, the Supreme Court, said the subsidy was best done away with. It also asked the central government to progressively reduce the subsidy amount with a view to completely abolish it by 2022.
The NDA government had also set up a committee to review existing Haj policies. This committee too recommended abolition of the subsidy.
About 1.75 lakh pilgrims have applied for this year’s pilgrimage even without the subsidy, Naqvi said, while 1300 women will travel in groups of four without a male companion, the first time this is being allowed. “We are also exploring the possibility of Haj through sea routes,” Naqvi said.
The minister added that the government, which spent around Rs 500 crore on its last Haj subsidy bill would like to the money being used for educating girls.
The government’s decision drew mixed reactions from opposition parties. Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party said he had been demanding withdrawal of the Haj subsidy since 2006 but didn’t quite agree with the government’s logic. “Why did Haryana government give Rs 1 Crore to Dera Sacha Sauda? Was it for electoral appeasement? Why did the Modi government give grant of ?100 crore to the MP government for Simhastha Maha Kumbh on which the latter spent ?3,400 crore. The Karnataka government is giving ?20,000 to each Hindu pilgrims for Char Dham. So is this not appeasement of the majority?” he asked.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said the government had withdrawn the subsidy four years ahead of the date prescribed by the Supreme Court and added that his party hopes that the government would also follow the second part of the judgement. Azad was referring to the SC’s recommendation that the money should be used to provide modern education for girls from minority communities.
Bihar Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesperson Ejya Yadav said the Centre’s decision to discontinue subsidy in the Haj pilgrimage was an “unfair decision” as, he said, it would deprive a large number of lower income group pilgrims of an opportunity to visit the Mecca.
There are two main categories of travel. In the so-called Green category, the top tier, a pilgrim pays ?1,81,200 plus ?37,800 towards personal expenses, which works out to ?219,000. In the next category called Azizia, the charges are ?1,47,200 plus ?37,800 towards personal expenses, totaling ?185,000. Of this, nearly ?38000 is a deposit of sorts and is refunded to pilgrims.
The previous UPA government had constituted a committee headed by the Cabinet secretary to go into the issue of an alternative financing option for Haj. The then Rajya Sabha deputy chairman K. Rahman Khan led a team that had proposed that India adopt Malaysia’s Tabung Haji model as an alternative.
Under the Malaysian model, each prospective pilgrim contributes money for future Haj travel in a Shariat-compliant fund, something like India’s Public Provident Fund. Malaysians therefore fund their own Haj travel.
“It was at the time widely alleged by Muslims that although arrangements remained shoddy, the subsidy actually went towards bailing out Air India. For a long time, Air India was the only carrier. I personally feel the withdrawal is a welcome step,” said Masoom Moradabadi, former member of UP Haj committee and an invitee to the All-India Personal Muslim Law Board.
In April 2008, Imam Ahmed Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid had submitted a memorandum to the then PM Manmohan Singh, demanding the Haj Act be amended to end Air India’s monopoly.
Moradabadi said the Quran made it clear that Haj was obligatory only for those who could afford it. “There was also a growing view among Muslims that the subsidy brought the charge of appeasement, while facilities were inadequate,” he said.
Naqvi said the withdrawal is “part of our policy to empower minorities with dignity and without appeasement”.
The Haj Committee of India, the nodal agency empowered to make arrangements for pilgrims, will continue to exist. Many pilgrims also travel privately.
The Haj subsidy is reflected in the budget of the civil aviation ministry.