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Haj subsidy to continue

Faced with no prospects in UP to return to the power, the BJP is now trying to pacify a section of Muslims. The central government in a sudden volte face has decided not to cut the Haj subsidy this year even up to half as was being said earlier and has decided to continue with the Haj subsidy like previous years.

The union government has quietly rejected the proposal of finance ministry to cut the subsidy of the Haj pilgrims at least to fifty percent and gradually phase it off completely in a short period. Earlier it was almost decided and a note was also circulated by the civil aviation ministry to the same effect. The curtailment of Haj subsidy was being demanded from a large section of the BJP and several other Sangh outfits.

Apparently it was to soothe the anger of Muslim community following ban on SIMI and siding with the US in its war against Muslim Afghanistan that the cabinet took this magnanimous decision. The Cabinet also decided on the same occasion to put Air India into the service with guidelines that it should provide the best facilities to Hajis on board.

The long standing demand of people of Lucknow to provide direct flights from the state capital to Jeddah seems to have been finally accepted. The city is the parliamentary constituency of the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and almost 25000 people go to Haj every year from this area alone. Special arrangements have been made despite reservation of some officials in the civil aviation ministry for Muslims to board direct flights from Lucknow to Jeddah. Official argument that larger aircraft like Boeing 777 could not take off from Lucknow was turned down by the Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussain and an alternative arrangement was promptly suggested and agreed to. Indian Airlines Boeing 737 would take pilgrims from Lucknow to Mumbai from where they will be accommodated into Boeing 777. Similar flights will be introduced from Srinagar and Kochi as well.

According to schedule the first Haj flight would take off on 12 January 2002 and continue till 16 February. The second phase would start from 25 February to 1 April. It is apparently the time when elections are supposed to be held in the state and they believe that the word of mouth publicity on the single biggest occasion for the Muslims could make a big difference in the electoral prospects. Syed Shahnawaz Hussain and Omar Abdullah, the two Muslim ministers in the Vajpayee government are assigned the task to look after Haj arrangements. Around 72000 people go for Haj through the government and more than 30000 go through private tour operators.

The total airfare and transit cost of a single pilgrim is Rs 32606 but a Haji is required to pay only Rs 12000 with the government bearing a subsidy of Rs 20606 on every pilgrim. Till last year the pilgrims were made to fly through chartered flights like Medows and Kampuchia airlines whose services were particularly poor and delay of 24 to 72 hours was considered a normal affair. Large scale corruption and kickbacks in awarding these contracts were also reported several times.

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