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Haj subsidy - fact or fiction
By Maasoom Moradabadi

The government has decided to gradually do away with the subsidy granted to those intending to go for Haj pilgrimage by air. Grounds are very subtly being prepared for this purpose. When the decision is finally taken, the Haj fare will go up from Rs 12,000 (at present) to Rs 36,000/. Government claims that it spends an amount of Rs 150 crores every year on subsidy to Haj pilgrims. However, if ground realities are considered in this connection, a fictitious aspect of this ‘benevolence’ will become apparent.

Has the government so far been hoodwinking Muslims in matter of Haj subsidy? Is the government’s granting subsidy on air journey, which is so widely publicised and propagated, doing any favour on them? We shall review this later in this article but first let us examine the steps that are proposed to be taken by the government in doing away with this subsidy.

Communalists have always been taunting Muslims that they perform Haj on account of subsidy being granted by the government. Fascist organisations like VHP and Bajrang Dal have repeatedly been demanding that Haj subsidy should be abolished. These organisations have become even more vocal in their demand ever since NDA government led by BJP has come to power at the Centre. Succumbing to their ever increasing demand and pressure the government has finally decided to abolish this subsidy for good within the next two years.

Action for gradual abolition of subsidy is being initiated from this year itself. It is expected that soon announcement will be made to deprive those prospective pilgrims of this concession who pay income tax and also those who want to go for Haj for the second or third time. Moreover, government intends to cut down the annual quota of Haj pilgrims from the present 72,000 to 50,000. This clearly implies that the pilgrims who have so far been paying Rs 12,000/= for air journey will now have to pay three times more and that they will be deprived of all other facilities and concessions which they had been getting in this connection.

Government has not so far clarified whether it will be abolishing the subsidy only for Haj pilgrims or it intends to reduce or do away with the subsidy or concessions to pilgrims for Kumbh Fair or such other religious pilgrimages. It may be stated in this connection that the central government grants a subsidy of Rs 1200 crores for every Kumbh Fair at Allahabad and necessary arrangements in this connection. This amount does not include crores of rupees incurred by the government on other major or minor programmes and religious functions.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Omar Abdullah, who is also looking after the Haj related matters recently announced in the Haj Conference held in Srinagar that the government is trying to gradually do away with the Haj subsidy because a discussion is going on among Muslims on the question of subsidy whereas the Qur’an clearly states in this connection that this (Haj) is incumbent on those who have the capacity to perform it.

He also said in the Haj Conference that ‘We may possibly do this (abolition of subsidy) from the year 2004’. On this occasion chief minister Farooq Abdullah said that unless Muslims do not learn to depend upon themselves, organisations like RSS will continue to degrade and taunt them. He supported the idea of abolition of subsidy and proposed many steps for bringing about reform in the Haj arrangements.

Achievements of Haj Committee
So far as subsidies on air travels of Haj pilgrims are concerned, some fundamental problems must be taken into account. Ministry of External Affairs, Govt of India had started Haj subsidy for journey by ship which is now stopped. Now more than one lakh pilgrims from India go for Haj by air. Out of this, around 72,000 pilgrims go through Haj Committee and the rest go through private tour operators. Arrangements made by the Haj Committee for prospective Hajis are always butt of criticism and on many occasions serious allegations on account of mismanagement and corruption have been made against the Haj Committee. Hajis have never expressed satisfaction over the arrangements and facilities made for them by the Haj Committee or the Ministry of External Affair during the flight or during the period of their stay at Makka and Madina. As regards the arrangements made for their boarding and lodging, there have always been complaints.

On the whole, the performance and arrangements made by the Haj Committee can not be described as satisfactory. The present Haj Committee is headed by a member of BJP’s national executive committee, Tanvir Ahmad who is basically a political person. Ever since he has taken over the reins of the Haj Committee, some leaders of BJP and organisations like RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal etc have become much more vocal in their demand for abolition of Haj subsidy, but whenever questions were put to them about their demand and to clarify their stand, they kept mum. However, the steps likely to be taken by the government to abolish subsidy can be judged from the following:

Steps to end subsidy
Parliament’s Standing Committee on Transport and Tourism has recently recommended that the subsidy given to Haj pilgrims on air travel should be reduced and later on abolished completely.

Expenditure Reforms Commission of Government of India too has recommended in its 10th report submitted in September 2001 that steps should be taken to end subsidy on charter flights for Haj and also to reduce the quota of Hajis.

Central cabinet has asked the ministry of civil aviation to submit to it a policy paper together with its proposals for reducing the number of Hajis and also the subsidy.

In reply to a question in Rajya Sabha in March this year government assured that the proposal to end subsidy in the next few years is under consideration.

According to M. Afzal, secretary in the minority cell of Congress, NDA government under BJP’s leadership has very cleverly and subtly taken several steps during the past two years or so to end subsidy.

Meeting of Muslim MPs
Union minister for civil aviation, Shah Nawaz Husain had called a meeting of Muslims MPs to consider the problems of ending Haj subsidy gradually and also to reduce the annual quota of Hajis. He tried to give the impression that BJP government is the biggest sympathiser and well-wisher of Muslims but the arguments and data presented by him in this connection exposed his political compulsions and immaturity. However, nothing could be decided unanimously about gradual abolition of subsidy. As regards the increase in fare, it is reliably learnt that an increase of Rs 4000, i.e., from Rs 12,000 to Rs 16,000, was favoured because there was no revision in the fare ever since 1994. Those who attended this meeting included, among others, PM Sayeed, C.K. Jafar Sharief, G.M. Banatwala, Saleem Sherwani etc.

The problem of granting Haj subsidy to pilgrims of 50 years and above and to reduce annual quota from 72,000 to 50,000 came up for discussion in this meeting but nothing was finally decided. In any case, subsidy will be reduced. This proposal is in fact nothing new. Government has been considering this problem for more than a year. Proposal to this effect is expected to be submitted to the Union cabinet for implementation from this year itself.

Government’s decision to gradually do away with the subsidy is based on the recommendations of 10th Expenditure Reforms Commission which recommended that the number of beneficiaries of subsidy should be reduced and should be frozen at the current level. Similarly, subsidy on charter fare also should be frozen at the current level.

Haj Subsidy: An eye-wash
If a deeper study of the so-called Haj subsidy is made, it will become apparent that it is simply an eye-wash. Facts which the Ministry of External Affairs is concealing from the public in the name of subsidy are that the national or international carriers by which pilgrims are flown to Jeddah from different Indian cities are chartered ones which the Haj Committee hires.

According to air travel rules, if a person travels in his individual capacity, he has to pay full fair but for group travel, fares are considerably reduced. If the entire plane is hired on charter, fares are reduced to even less than half. 

The fundamental question is: when the pilgrims are taken to Saudi Arabia by chartered flights where is the question of subsidy? The per head fare will even otherwise be half or less than that, subsidy or no subsidy.

The other day government was blamed for paying huge amounts to Air India in order to make up its losses on account of subsidy but in the light of above facts it is nothing but a ruse to befool Muslims and also to give the communalists a tool to defame and taunt Muslims. What is needed is that a high level enquiry should be made to investigate all these tall talks of subsidy to Haj pilgrims and to which head this ‘subsidy’ is apportioned. 
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