Finally, the Narendra Modi government has withdrawn the Haj subsidy that the Union government gave to Muslim Haj pilgrims going to Mecca. Supreme Court had advised the government to do away with the Haj subsidy by the year 2022 in a phased manner. Haj subsidy had been a poll issue for the BJP and the eventual removal of it will be rather very satisfying for the hardcore BJP supporters across the country.
Why Muslims are not protesting against the move
It is rather surprising that the Indian Muslim community, that should be the only segment affected ‘adversely’ by the removal of Haj subsidy, is not complaining.
Ever since the move was announced by the Minister of Minority Affairs, there hasn’t been a single protest against the government move. No Muslim social or religious organization has shown its intent to hold protest or announced any demonstration in any part of the country.
On the contrary, more and more Muslim leaders including Ulema are coming forward and claiming that the subsidy was sham and never helped the Haj pilgrims. Many of them claim that the subsidy aimed to help the loss-making state airliner Air India and no one else.
Muslims welcome the subsidy removal
After the announcement of withdrawal of the Haj subsidy, Muslim Personal law Board general secretary, Maulana Wali Rahmani said, “The subsidy was not given to those going on Haj but it was for Air India that is running in losses. It was an eyewash. Muslims were cheated in the name of the subsidy…In normal days, tickets for Saudi Arabia come for Rs 32,000 but during Haj, Air India used to charge Rs 65,000 to Rs 1 lakh from those going for Haj. The fare will be less without subsidy…Haj-bound Muslims are bulk purchasers of Air India tickets and so their fare should be less. It’s rule of International Air Transport Association that if anyone is going for pilgrimage, he will be given 40% discount. If the fare is not less, it should at least the same as on normal days”.
Was Haj subsidy a sham?
There are two very divergent opinions when it comes to Haj subsidy. The amount of Haj subsidy was thought to be mammoth by many, while its detractors said that the Haj subsidy was a sham. Last year, around 1.75 lakh pilgrims went on Haj and the central government subsidized the Muslim pilgrimage by paying Rs 250 crore, a small sum by any yardstick. The amount of Haj subsidy is coming down sharply. In the year 2012, this was Rs 837 crore. It went down to Rs 680 crore in the year 2013 and further to Rs 577 crore in 2014. In the year 2016 Haj subsidy was less than half of 2012 level as it was merely Rs 405 crore.
When Maulana Wali Rehmani and other Muslim leaders claim that the two way fare of the Haj travel costs just Rs 32000 and that it can be brought down further by chartering the aircraft, they forget to mention the fact that the aircraft has to make two empty runs due to the fact that it returns without any passengers after dropping the pilgrims to either Mecca or Madina.
While going to pick up the passengers, the aircraft has to go again empty all the way from Indian airports to Mecca or Medina or Jeddah and bring the pilgrims from there.
These two empty runs of the aircrafts ultimately escalate the cost of travel. Nonetheless, it is also true that Rs 65000 or Rs 80000 airfare that the Air India charges Hajis is much higher than what a transparent bidding process can ensure.
History of Haj subsidy
Many theories circulating around claim that Haj subsidy was introduced by British rulers and that it continues since then. There was no Haj subsidy till early seventies, when the rising cost of jet fuel forced the airline companies to sharply raise the airfare. The high airfare made the flight very costly for the Hajis. Given the chaos, the government stepped in and provided subsidy to the passengers in the form of subsidized airfare.
Cost of Haj
It must be added here that every pilgrim pays at least Rs 170000 for the Haj pilgrimage. It can go up substantially for pilgrims depending upon the housing arrangements in Mecca and Medina. Hajis accommodated closely to the Grand Mosque in Mecca are charged higher while people accommodated in Aziziya, far flung suburbs in Mecca are charged lower.
There are many pilgrims who don’t use government ‘subsidy’. There is no subsidy for pilgrims going by private Haj operators. It must be added here that tens of thousands of pilgrims going for Haj, who opt for private Haj operators instead of Haj Committee managed pilgrimage, pay a lot higher.
In many cases, where Hajis are kept in five star hotels in Mecca and Medina and provided separate tents in Mina, the cost of pilgrimage can go up manifold. Well-off Muslims, who don’t want the suffer the trauma of living in large commune type accommodations and share the room (or huge sized halls) with half a dozen or more people, opt for high end tour operators.
Corruption in Haj affairs
Corruption in India is endemic and runs deep. No department is above it, not even when it comes to travel to holiest places. It has been said many times in the past that while the government gives Haj subsidy, the beneficiaries are not the pilgrims but the corrupt officials and Air India. Late Syed Shahabuddin, a bureaucrat and MP was well aware of it and he recommended a transparent process to manage it.
“That there is corruption goes without saying but one does not know how far up the money travels. If the Government wishes 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”, wrote Syed Shahabuddin in the year 2002.
More columns by Syed Ubaidur Rahman:
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Indian Muslim leadership: Why the blinders need to be removed
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Syed Ubaidur Rahman is a New Delhi based writer and commentator. He has written several books on Muslims and Islam in India including Understanding Muslim Leadership in India.