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Introducing systematic changes in Haj management
By Syed Shahabuddin

Syed ShahabuddinHaj Management has shown considerable improvement in the year 2001 but there is always room for improvement. The problem is that further improvement calls not so much for organizational tuning but for systematic overhaul.

The first step towards systematic overhaul was taken when the draft Haj Committee Bill, 2001 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. Without going into details, the Bill envisages a regionally and functionally representative composition of the Committee, statutory status for State Haj Committees with organic linkage with the central Haj Committee and, what is most important, transfer of the office of the latter from Mumbai to Delhi in view of the decline of Mumbai as the point of exit (once upon a time, it was the only point of exit), and accountability of the Haj Committee to the Parliament. However, it took 22 years for the Bill to be drafted and introduced. It has now been entrusted to a Joint Parliamentary Committee for examination. One wonders how long the Bill will take to mature into law, because the status quo forces have not given up their hostility and are actively working to put it into deep freeze.

However, within the framework of the existing Act, the Central Government has to take some vital decisions.

The first relates to the so-called Haj Quota. The quota system has become outdated because there is no foreign exchange shortage and any Indian citizens can travel abroad with adequate foreign exchange. Indeed the foreign exchange requirement of a Haj pilgrim is far less than the maximum ordinarily permissible for travel abroad. The quota system has also become meaningless because over the last few years all Haj applicants have been allowed. The quota system now only delays the final okay for pilgrims from those ‘deficit’ states which register more applications than their entitlement according to their proportion of total Muslim population of the country. The unutilized quota of surplus states is transferred to and redistributed among the ‘deficit’ states in proportion to the number of excess applications. All this time consuming exercise can be avoided, if quota system is abolished and all applicants are allowed, subject to eligibility. The implementation of the Haj Plan can be finalized and speeded up, if there is no quota, immediately after the expiry of the last date of receipt of applications.

In view of the finite capacity of the Valley of Arafat and of Mina where all pilgrims from all over the world congregate during the Haj, and indeed of Makka itself, the Organization of Islamic Conference has recommended a voluntary limit of 1 pilgrim for 100 Muslims from all States. But we are still considerably below this limit. Perhaps, in future, this limit may have to be adhered to but for the present the OIC limit does not apply to Muslim Indians.

The second major issue is the question of air transport. Of late there has been a marked rise in the Haj Charter fare. Transportation of pilgrims to and from the Holy land is the statutory responsibility of the Haj Committee but for reasons best known to the Government, Charter fare negotiation with air carriers has been taken over by the Ministry of Civil Aviation or entrusted to Air India which thus plays a double role as it sits on both sides of the table. The Haj Committee’s central role must be restored; it should be allowed a free hand, to advertise its requirements, call for international tenders and negotiate the terms of charter with eligible bidders, subject to technical inspection and approval of aircraft by the DGCA. The final financial and administrative approval will remain with the Government of India. In the year 2001, after a gap of many years, the Saudi Airlines showed interest and transported some 20,000 pilgrims. The Haj Committee should welcome it and before calling for bids, ascertain from the Air India and the Saudi Airlines whether they have the required aircraft and are interested in providing the Haj service. From the pilgrim’s angle, nothing would be better than a 50:50 division of work between them.

For purpose of negotiation, the Haj Committee can form a team with the Chairman, along with another senior and experienced Member and the representatives of the Ministries of External Affairs, Finance and Civil Aviation who already sit on the Committee. The rule of the thumb should be that the charter fare should not exceed 2/3 of the current Delhi-Jeddah-Delhi IATA fare in US dollars. In the year 2001, the charter fare exceeded the IATA fare! If the IATA fare rises, the Charter fare is bound to rise correspondingly.

Once the charter fare is settled, the question of subsidy arises. In principle there should be no government subsidy as Haj is, a ‘Farz’ (religious duty) only for those Muslims who can afford it. Since Haj Charter service has been subsidized for the last 25 years, if not longer, it is now taken as the norm and claimed as a matter of right. What is worse the pilgrim’s share has been static at Rs.12,000/-, whatever the rate of exchange. This is absolutely unfair. A pilgrim pays for all services/purchases in Saudi Arabia in Riyals according to current rate of exchange. Why shouldn’t he pay for air transportation at the current rate of exchange?

Assuming that at one point the rate of exchange was $1= Rs.30 and the Charter fare was $480 i.e. Rs.14,400. The subsidy came to Rs.2,400. Today the rate of exchange is nearly $1= Rs.50. Assuming that the Haj Charter fare is fixed at $500, the rupee equivalent, would be Rs.25,000/-. There cannot be any rationale for not raising the Haj fare to this level and claiming a subsidy of Rs.13,000. Even if there was no rise in Charter fare, in rupees it would come to $480 x 50 = 24,000 at the current rate of exchange. The Haj pilgrim, however, should be cushioned against a sudden rise in Haj fare. Negotiations can neither alter the rate of exchange nor the current IATA fare. So the art of honest negotiation lies in fixing the charter fare at the lowest possible percentage of the IATA fare. The gap between a properly negotiated charter fare and the Haj fare payable by pilgrim can be gradually reduced with every passing year. The subsidy quantum can thus be progressively brought down and eventually withdrawn. But this is a political decision which successive governments have been reluctant to take. The subsidy in the year 2000 is said to have exceeded Rs.144 crores. Needless to say that in the present social environment, the whole community faces criticism for availing of subsidy for performance of a religious duty!

There are now 8 embarkation points and the more - Lucknow, Srinagar and Calicut are under consideration. One hopes that subject to fulfillment of technical requirements, these new embarkation points shall become operational for the Haj 2002.

Accommodation in Saudi Arabia
The third important question relates to accommodation of pilgrims in Mecca and Medina during the Haj, and particularly, the system for selection of buildings in Mecca. The Saudi Arabian authorities leave the unit rent to the play of market forces. Obviously the newer, the better equipped and the less distant the buildings, the higher the cost per unit of accommodation (this year raised from 2.5 sq. metres to 3 sq. metres of floor space). The landlords cater to all classes of pilgrims but all buildings are now air-conditioned and have minimum toilet and kitchen facilities.
The Haj Committee has generally laid down maximum limits of half and one km. from the Haram Sharif for 2 categories, availability of lifts if the building has more than four floors and provision of other facilities on a minimum scale. Obviously, Haj accommodation cannot be tailor-made to suit individual pilgrims and there will always be dissatisfaction on one count or the other. But what is important is that under the present system complaints given rise to allegations of corruption.
The crux of the problem lies in that the present system makes the selection of buildings the joint responsibility of the Haj Committee, the State Haj Committee and the Consulate General of India and, therefore, diffuses the responsibility. An administratively better approach would be to make the arrangement for accommodation of pilgrims in Saudi Arabia the absolute and undivided responsibility of the Consulate General of India. The Haj Committee may position a small team in Jeddah/Mecca to be available to the Consulate General for advice on selection but the deciding authority must be the Consul General, so that in case of complaints, it is he who is answerable. From personal knowledge, one can say that the long spells that the members of the Building Selection Teams drawn from all over the country spend in Saudi Arabia serve no purpose at all. In most cases, the official deputation to Saudi Arabia becomes nothing more than a paid holiday.
Secondly, accommodation is not rented statewise; nor can it be. In fact, the buildings rented are made progressively functional with the arrival of the pilgrims, which is spread over four weeks or more. This means that if a building has been ‘selected’ by a representative of a state government or State Haj Committee, that building may not be available to the pilgrims from that state at all! So what is the point in including the State Haj Committee in this process? I would however, suggest that a small technical team headed by one Executive Engineer (Civil) be deputed to the CGI for rendering technical advice on buildings.

Division of Work
As for the welfare of Hajis in Saudi Arabia, it is suggested that there should be a clear division of work and responsibility between the Government of India Representatives in Saudi Arabia - the Embassy and the Consulate General. The Government of India Representatives alone are recognized by and have access to the Saudi Arabian authorities. They should have undivided responsibility for all that requires to be done for the pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, from the day they descend in the Holy Land, to the day when they leave it.
The Haj Committee should similarly be responsible for all the Haj work to be done in India from preparing the Haj plan, advising the Government of India, scrutinizing the applications, confirming the booking, fixing the charter fare and appointing the Charter carrier, facilitating boarding on departure and deboarding on return, etc.

Batching System
But much more important for the welfare of the pilgrim is the introduction of the Batching System. Once the pilgrims list is finalized, the pilgrims from the same or nearby districts and speaking the same language should be formed into batches of one plane-load each, who can fly out together, live together and travel together in Saudi Arabia and return to India together. Each batch should have an Amirul Haj, selected by the State Haj Committee from amongst them, and a Haj Welfare Team consisting of one General Physician with one pre-medical staff and one Haj Welfare Officer with one Haj Volunteer, selected by the State Haj Committee as far as possible from the same region as the pilgrims of the batch, on condition that they shall be accommodated with and travel with their batch in Saudi Arabia and thus be constantly available to them, twenty-four hours a day, to attend to their needs and complaints and act as liaison between the Batch and the Haj Officer of the CGI.
This calls for a conscious decision by the Government of India to decentralize to a great extent the selection of the Haj Medical Mission and the Haj administrative Staff deputed to Saudi Arabia and give the States and State Haj Committee a free hand in the matter. The minimum additional staff – medical and administrative – needed by the CGI to run the Central Dispensary and the Haj Office shall continue to be selected and deputed by the Ministry of External Affairs.
The Batching System will also be useful in training the pilgrims about the Haj rites and apprising them of the living conditions in Saudi Arabia and of the various stages of the Haj. Above all, it shall bring into play to spirit of mutual help and self-sacrifice among pilgrims who would know each other, can speak to each other and who have to live with each other for nearly 45 days.

Minimum Shopping
One major difficulty faced by the Haj pilgrims during the year 2000 – delay in clearing their unaccompanied baggage and sometime their loss. To some extent, this can be minimized by utilizing only Jumbo aircraft for the Haj charter with their higher load capacity and by charging the pilgrim the normal concessional rate for excess baggage. However, training will help as the pilgrims also needs to be instructed that the basic object and purpose of the Haj is not purchase of luxury goods and that they should avoid buying articles which are of no religious significance. Haj training should inculcate the inner feeling that Haj is not business nor an occasion to oblige relations with gifts. Haj is the once-in-a life time opportunity to visit the Holy Land and to worship in the Holy Mosques. Haj time is too sacrosanct to waste upon window shopping and bargain hunting.

Government and Haj Committee Delegations
The Ministry of External Affairs should cut down the size not only of the official Haj Delegation which serves no purpose at all, except political patronage, and on which nearly 2 crores are spent. The Haj Committee should also refrain from deputing a large Delegation to Saudi Arabia to oblige its Members and staff. It may depute TWO small Teams of One Member each supported by two staff to Saudi Arabia, the first, to cover the period from the arrival of the first Haj flight to the first departure after the Haj, and the second, the period from the last Haj flight to the last departure. During the Haj, the two Teams will overlap. The Haj Committee needs to have a token presence in Saudi Arabia during the Haj, not for fulfilling any executive responsibility but to provide a second channel for monitoring the condition of the Indian pilgrims and to bring their problems – individual or collective – to the notice of the Consulate General which is expected to take urgent remedial measures. The Haj Committee should not be allowed to run a parallel Haj Service in Saudi Arabia or even open a formal Haj Office or Haj Information Centre. It should have only an advisory and not an executive role.

Dialogue With Saudi Arabia
Lastly, beyond the problems faced by individual pilgrim during the Haj, there are larger question about the management of the Haj in Saudi Arabia - the arrangements in Mecca, Medina, Mina and Arafat, the facilitation of transport from one point to the other, the arrangements for post-Haj Tawaf in Mecca and for the ritual of Rajm in Mina, the role of the Mu’allims, the availability of Indian Ribats in Mecca/Medina or reconstruction of the substitutes of those demolished etc. These need to be discussed with the Saudi Arabian authorities. But there can be no worthwhile discussion during the Haj. No one has the time. So it would be useful if the Government of India were to send an Official Delegation to Saudi Arabia for exchange of views on Haj matters, during the interregnum between one Haj and the next. That may lead to fruitful results beneficial to all the Haj pilgrims in the long run. After all, Indian pilgrims are among the biggest contingents from any country.
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