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Haj subsidy is a fact and must go eventually

Mr. Masoom Moradabadi's article "Haj Subsidy - Fact or Fiction" (MG, 1-15 September, 2002) suffers from a number of ill-founded presumptions and evident inaccuracies. 

Firstly, Haj subsidy is the difference between the Haj charter fare charged by the carriers under the agreement with the Haj Committee and the fare collected by the Haj Committee from the pilgrims. If the difference is, say, Rs.32,000 minus Rs.12,000 i.e. Rs.20,000 per pilgrim, for 72,000 pilgrims traveling by the Haj charter managed by the Haj Committee, the total subsidy will come to Rs.20,000 x 72,000 i.e. 144 crores. So it is neither fictitious nor imaginary. Nor does it amount to the Government of India or the Haj Committee hoodwinking the pilgrims. Neither is it an eyewash. Neither it is theologically desirable. However, I deliberately keep off the theological argument for its abolition as Pakistan has done. To the best of my knowledge, there is no Muslim country which subsidizes Haj. 

Secondly, Haj subsidy is not at all comparable to the cost of bandobast made in India by the Central/State Governments or local administration at the time of fairs like the Kumbh Mela or pilgrimages like the Amarnath Yatra or, for that matter, the annual Urs of Muslim saints like Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Gharibnawaz at Ajmer. Bandobast is comparable to the massive arrangements made by the Government of Saudi Arabia for the Haj for all pilgrims and the supportive arrangements made by the Government of India like the opening of a permanent Haj Office in the Consulate General of India, Jeddah, the deputation of the Haj Mission during the Haj to expand the Haj Office, the posting of a Medical Mission with the opening of several Haj dispensaries in Mecca and Medina, free distribution of medicines, provision of ambulance services and limited hospitalization facilities; deputation of Khuddamul Hujjaj by the various State Haj Committees and of its own members by the Haj Committee, not to mention the costly, wasteful and purposeless exercise of sending an Official Haj Goodwill Mission. The bandobast includes also the facilities provided by the State and Central Haj Committee for collecting and training pilgrims, arranging internal transportation, monitoring their arrival at and departure from various collecting and exit points in India. 

Thirdly, there is no such thing as 'Haj quota'. It was introduced at the time when the country faced a foreign exchange problem and the quota was fixed keeping in view the foreign exchange outlay set aside for Haj pilgrims. The reality is that for several years practically all those who apply to the Haj Committee have been accepted to proceed for Haj. Perhaps many applied to the Haj Committee because of the subsidy. There is no foreign exchange shortage now and any citizen going abroad, whatever his purpose, is eligible to draw foreign exchange, much more than the maximum allowed to a Haj pilgrim by the Haj Committee in its wisdom.

Fourthly, it is historically wrong to assert that the question of reducing Haj subsidy and ultimately eliminating it has arisen only after the NDA/BJP came to power though the Sangh Parivar's criticism has become more shrill and sharp. The question of Haj Subsidy was formally raised in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs in the early '90's during Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao's Government year after year. All parties are represented in the Standing Committee and the recommendation to reduce it and eventually to abolish it was unanimous. What is important for us is to realize that for the benefit of a few, we have served the Sangh Parivar with a 'cause' on a platter, given them a stick to beat the Muslims with and an argument to their theory that secularism in the Indian context means appeasement or preferential treatment to the minorities! Is this in the long-term interest of the Muslim community? 

Fifthly, Haj subsidy indeed began in the early 70's after the oil crisis which caused recurring losses to the Moghul Line, a subsidiary of the Shipping Corporation of India, which operated a Haj service initially with 4 ships. I recall vividly that the Board of Directors of the Moghul Line toyed with the idea of raising the First Class fare while maintaining the deck class fare more or less, so as to break the cost of the service even on a no-profit, no loss basis. In the meantime, a worldwide trend arose to reduce passenger shipping because of the non-availability of new passenger ships. 

Ship building yards were constructing few ships, that too of the luxury class for tourists. Thus the Moghul Line was not in a position to replace its aging vessels. More and more Haj traffic from all over the world, except from the Sudan or Somalia across the Red Sea, for the same reason has shifted to air. Today almost entire Haj traffic is by air. Therefore, those who argue that the Government of India or the Haj Committee should acquire passenger ships are obviously ignorant of the world shipping situation or that the sea fare would exceed the air fare, apart from adding to the overall cost of the Haj due to longer travel time and longer stay in Saudi Arabia. Haj transportation from India by air had begun in the 60's itself. But as it grew, it faced the oil crisis in the early 70's when the carriers raised airfare due to inordinate rise in the cost of aviation fuel. 

Haj subsidy was introduced so as to provide a temporary cushion against sudden increase in the Haj fare. The Haj charter fare was fixed first, to the best of my recollection, at Rs.6,000, then raised to Rs.8,000, then to Rs.12,000, where it has remained static for the last two decades or more.

To the extent the Haj fare increases because of rise in the IATA return fare, say, Delhi-Jeddah-Delhi, in US Dollars and the change in the rate of exchange between the Dollar and the Rupee, there is nothing that the Government of India or the Haj Committee can do. For example, if the IATA fare increases from $400 to $600 and the exchange rate from Rs.10 to Rs.50 per dollar, it will mean a natural increase of $200 X 40 = Rs.8,000. This the Haj pilgrim should pay in good conscience, just as he pays higher accommodation charges in Mecca and Medina and Mina-Arafat, the higher cost of bread and other essentials he buys in Saudi Arabia and even higher fixed charges for Haj movement payable to the Saudi Arabian authorities because of the corresponding rise in the exchange rate of the Saudi Riyals which is linked to dollar at $1.00 = SR 3.75. However, Mr. Moradabadi has a point - which I have myself been arguing for years upon the Government of India, both the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of External Affairs: there is no reason for the Haj charterfare, whosoever be the carrier, to exceed 2/3 of the normal IATA fare. I say 2/3, not because one has to make allowance of 2 vacant runs of the aircraft from Jeddah to Delhi during the outward movement and from Delhi to Jeddah during the inward movement. Indeed, during my time as Joint Secretary (Haj) in the Ministry of External Affairs and as

Member/Vice-Chairman of the Haj Committee, I had endeavoured to keep it more or less at that level. Unfortunately it went totally out of control during the late 90's and the charter fare as a proportion of the IATA fare began rising. Now the Charter fare exceeds the IATA fare by 10%. The inability or the unwillingness of the Haj Committee, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Civil Aviation to lower the Charter fare is the real problem.

I do not understand why the Government is unwilling to examine closely the cause of the inordinate rise in the charter fare as a proportion of the current IATA fare. This is a mystery I cannot unravel. But I have my doubts about the integrity and the efficiency of the negotiating team and the decision makers. This doubt is further enhanced because of adhoc procedures being adopted for selecting the carrier and fixing the Charter fare. Surely some people are profiting at the expense of the Government and the pilgrims and the Muslims are serving as the scapegoat.

Assuming Rs.32,000 to be the Haj Charter fare and 72,000 pilgrims, the total transaction comes to Rs.230.4 crores. We know that in our country every transaction generates a Commission, an under-the-table payment. 5% will amount to more than 11.5 crores! That there is corruption goes without saying but one does not know how far up the money travels. If the Government wish to convince the Muslim community about the need to pay higher Haj charter fare, the process of charter arrangement must become transparent. The statutory responsibility for making arrangement for the transportation of the pilgrims vests in the Haj Committee. It is for the Haj Committee to float the international tender and to enter into negotiations with the interested carriers (including Air India or India Airlines) which respond and make a bid. The Haj Committee has the necessary expertise by now, to work out its essential requirements for the tender. To examine the bids and to negotiate with the shortlisted bidders, It should form a 5-man Negotiating Team with the Chairman and one more member, preferably one of the Vice-Chairmen, a representative each of the Ministries of External Affairs, Civil Aviation and Finance at the level of Joint Secretary. Air India which has an obvious conflict of interest should not, repeat NOT, be represented on the Team. The Ministry of Civil Aviation should, however, direct the Airport Authority of India to offer best possible terms for ground facilities for the outward and inward flights and the Directorate of Civil Aviation to check and certify the airworthiness of the aircrafts offered by the carrier. It goes without saying that the terms of the Charter will be subject to final approval by the Government.

The Haj Committee should, through the Embassy of India, Riyadh and the Consulate General of India, Jeddah, find out in advance from the Saudi Arabian Airlines whether it wishes to participate in the transportation arrangement and if so, whether it will accept the terms offered by the Haj Committee to which the other carrier agrees. In case the Haj Committee selects a carrier other than Air India, the Ministry of Civil Aviation should issue a directive to Air India to comply with the requisite formalities as the national carrier. Presently, even the formation of the Negotiating Team is kept secret; its composition is a top secret; the final terms agreed to are never released for public scrutiny. 

The mode of payment of the subsidy, to the Haj Committee or directly to the carrier, by the Ministry of External Affairs or by the Ministry of Civil Aviation or through Air India is also not in the public domain. Why all this secrecy? What is urgently needed is a White Paper on Haj Subsidy giving year-wise IATA fare, the prevailing exchange rate, the name of the carrier, Haj charter fare payable to the carrier, the fare collected from the pilgrim, the subsidy per pilgrim and the total amount. The White Paper should also give the names of the then Chairman, Haj Committee, the then Minister of Civil Aviation and the then Chairman/Managing Director of Air India. If the Haj charter fare is brought down to 2/3 of the IATA fare and the pilgrim is asked to pay the natural increase on Rs.12,000 since it was first fixed, the Government can well pay the difference, without much political repercussion. Or the pilgrim may well refuse the subsidy because it shall be an insignificant amount as compared to the total cost of Haj! More pilgrims may then take to normal commercial flights and perform Haj through the Haj Tour Operators, if indeed they offer better terms than the Haj Committee as Mr. Moradabadi has stated. The Government, however, need to regulate the Haj Tour Operators in the interest of the pilgrims. 

Syed Shahabuddin

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