New Delhi, May 8 (IANS) India provides subsidy to over a lakh pilgrims who go to Makkah and Madina annually and spends over Rs.600 crore ($120 million) every year on the pilgrimage.
India's Supreme Court has now asked the government to eliminate the Haj subsidy gradually over the next 10 years.
According to information available, the Haj Committee of India (HCI) receives over 300,000 applications every year since 2009. In 2009, the number of applications stood at 3,57,338. In 2010, HCI received 3,00,680 applications and in 2011, it received 3,02,616 applications.
The government provided subsidised air fare to 120,131 pilgrims in 2009, to 126,191 pilgrims in 2010, and 125,051 pilgrims in 2011.
It spent Rs.690 crore in 2009, Rs.600 crore in 2010 and Rs.605 crore in 2011, according to the figures government provided to parliament last month. These subsidy figures do not include the service tax paid for each of the pilgrim's trip to Makkah and Madina.
This information was provided by the civil aviation ministry.
The external affairs ministry in 2010 informed parliament that the government was striving to reduce the Haj subsidy. In this regard, the government had decided to increase the air fare chargeable from Rs.12,000 to Rs.16,000 in 2009 from each of the Haj pilgrims travelling through HCI.
The number of Haj pilgrims going through the HCI itself is decided by the external affairs ministry, which is the nodal ministry for Haj matters.
The cost of air travel of pilgrims undertaking Haj through HCI is borne partly by the pilgrims and partly subsidised by the government.
The fare to be charged from pilgrims is decided by the union cabinet and collected by the HCI. The remaining cost of the travel is met by the government for which a budgetary provision is made in the annual budget of the civil aviation ministry.
The number of pilgrims to be covered under the scheme and the number of embarkation points in India is also decided by the cabinet every year.
The cabinet had in 2011 charged Rs.16,000 for travel from each of the pilgrims and flights were operated from 21 embarkation points.
The civil aviation ministry is entrusted with the responsibility of making air travel arrangements for Haj pilgrims proceeding for pilgrimage through the HCI.
The Haj subsidy programme has been operational since 1954 in India, the only country to be offering such a facility to pilgrims. That year, Air India operated flights between then Bombay to Jeddah.
But progressively Haj flights operations were extended from Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and other major airports in the country.
The subsidy was introduced to Haj pilgrimage in view of the high cost of chartered air travel -- twice the normal fare -- due to flights returning empty to India after carrying the pilgrims to Jeddah or flying empty to Jeddah to bring back the pilgrims.
However, there is a view among Muslim clerics that such a subsidy is illegal under Islamic Sharia laws, as it is stipulated that a Haj pilgrim should travel to Makkah and Madina bearing the costs from their own earnings.
"A Haj is undertaken only if you have the money, are in good health, and have performed all your duties towards your family. Going on a Haj with money you borrowed from someone is absolutely prohibited," Shahi Imam of Delh's Fatehpuri Masjid - Mukarram Ahmed told IANS.
This view was supported by Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Syed Ahmed Bukhari.