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வெள்ளி, டிசம்பர் 8, 2006
The Subsidy for Haj Pilgrimage
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On August 25, 2006, the Allahabad High Court (in Uttar Pradesh) - on a case filed in 1995 - ruled that the Subsidy given by the Central Government on Haj Pilgrimage is illegal. With just a few months left for the first flights carrying the pilgrims travelling through Haj Committee to take off, the Central Government filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. On September 18th, without staying the Allahabad High Court Order wholly, the Court gave a temporary relief for this year alone, allowing the subsidy to continue. The final judgement on this should be delivered well before the next Haj season begins.

Haj subsidy has been a contentious issue for many years. Right-wing Hindu organisations have characterised it as an appeasement of Muslims. It has been one of the few issues for the Sangh Parivar groups to target muslims on. Within the Muslim community itself, the opinion has been divided. Many see no harm in it and many others have termed it unislamic (and/or as an unnecessary expenditure).

Giving subsidy is an universal practice world over. Subsidy is the money spent by the government to make a product cheaper for the people to buy/consume. For example, in India, the government usually pays the Oil companies crores of rupees to keep the petrol and diesel prices cheaper (by paying the difference between the market price and the cost price). The practise is prevalent in Europe and the US too for many of their important products.

What really is Haj Subsidy? To answer this question, one must go back a little in time. For centuries, Muslims from all over the world, had proceeded on Haj every year. It is one of the five pillars of Islam; along with Zakath, Haj is an obligation compulsory on those who are capable. Besides being healthy enough to face the difficult journey and the conditions of Arabian peninsula, the intending pilgrim must also be financially independent and capable.

In India, even before Independence in 1947, there were specific laws to enable Haj pilgrimage. For example, an Act was passed by the British in 1932 called the Port Haj Committees Act regarding this. For logistical reasons, Mumbai (Bombay) has long been the primary port to begin the journey for Haj. In 1959, Central Haj Committee Act was passed and the Central Haj Committee with its office in Bombay was formed. The main function of the Haj Committee was to invite application, collect money, arrange transport, accommodation etc.

Till the introduction of air travel in early 1970s, Ships were the only mode of travel for the Haj. Moghul Line, a subsidiary company of Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), a government organisation, handled the traffic. The pilgrims would pay the fare - calculated based on actuals. They were charged the Ship/Air Ticket cost, accommodation costs, local transport costs etc on cost-to-cost basis. Number of pilgrims travelling was also only in a few thousands. [From 1995, the practice of sending pilgrims by Ship was discontinued. Today, pilgrims travel on Haj from 15 different places in India - through Air. Through the Haj Committees alone - 110,000 leave on Haj. Another 47,000 leave using the services of private travel operators. Saudi Arabia fixes a quota on the number of Haj Visas it issues. It is usually fixed at 0.01 percent of number of muslims living in a country].

How and when did the Subsidy enter into this? According to Mr.Syed Sahabuddin, former MP and the retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, it was following the Oil Shock of 1973 - when the price of Oil increased dramatically as the Arab-Israeli War (of 1973) came to end. To protect the pilgrims from the sudden jump in the fare (because of increased oil prices), the then Central Government (led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi) began to offer subsidies to keep the ship/air fare low - a practice that had continued till date.

A travel on Haj entails the following expenses - whether you travel through the Haj Committee or any of the private travel operators:

*** Air Ticket Fare
*** Compulsory Dues (for stay in Mina/Arafath/Muzdalifa, local transport etc)
*** Cost of accommodation in Mecca
*** Cost of accommodation in Medina
*** Personal expenses in Saudi Arabia (food, qurbani etc)

In the case of private travel operators, when they fix a fare, in addition to the above expenses, they would add their profit too. However, the Central Haj Committee is obliged to work as a non-profit organisation, directed to collect money on a cost-to-cost basis only.

Any foreign travel would involve foreign exchange. For the Haj, government allows - for each pilgrim - a foreign exchange entitlement (this year) of 6290 riyals (for Category 1), 5790 riyals (for Category 2), 5240 riyals (for Category 3 and Category-Sheesha) and 4640 riyals (for Category-Aziziya). This is the combined expense involved - except for Air Ticket Fare. The breakup for each pilgrim would be Compulsory dues (about 1290 Riyals), cost of Mecca accommodation (varies depending on the category chosen. Category 1 is the closest to Haram and would cost 2700 Riyals this year and Category-Aziziya, the most distant, would cost 1050 Riyals) and cost of accommodation in Medina (would be a standard 300 Riyals for all categories this year). The Haj Committee also gives back - on arrival in Jeddah - a demand draft for about 2000 Riyals (the difference after deducting for Compulsory Dues and Rentals) in the pilgrim's name, encashable at the Airport. This 2000 riyals (roughly) is for use on personal needs - including Qurbani and Food.

What is left here is the cost of air ticket. That is where the issue lies. For many years, the cost of air fare for those pilgrims travelling through Haj Committiee has been fixed at Rs.12,000 by the Haj Committee - whereas the actual cost paid for this is much higher.

To understand this, one must first understand how is air travel arranged. As required by the government, Central Haj Committee - through Air-India - arranges for flights. These will be chartered flights - operated in the name of Air India, but may belong to some other airlines in some other countries. At this negotation, per pilgrim air fare is fixed. It is roughly about Rs.32,000. As noted earlier, Haj Committee only collects Rs.12,000 from the pilgrims for the air fare. The difference - about Rs.20,000 per pilgrim - is paid by the Central Government to Ministry of Civil Aviation (for eventual pay to the Chartering companies). This money spent by the government - to keep the air-fare low - is the subsidy and it works out to about Rs.300 crores per year.

Several questions arise - some religious, some economical and some political.

Whether it is religiously acceptable to make the government pay the difference in air-fare is better left for an individual to interpret and decide upon. It should be sufficient to point out - no country does this. It was banned by Lahore High Court (in Pakistan) in 1997 and many religious scholars in Saudi Arabia and in India have decried this.

There are some who point out Air Charter Fare (of about Rs.32,000) is too high for each pilgrim, much higher than the normal return-fare between Jeddah-India. One should remember the cost collected from the pilgrim for air fare is only Rs.12,000. Even if one concedes that the charter fare of Rs.32,000 is high and it should be say about Rs.25,000 - it would still mean a subsidy of Rs.13,000 per pilgrim. Also - before comparing the air fare on scheduled flights with those by the charter companies for haj, we should remember - Scheduled flights - say of Saudi Airlines or Emirates, when they take a passenger from Chennai to Jeddah are allowed to carry passengers on their return journey. In the case of chartered flights, this doesn't happen. Chartered flights return empty - spending fuel and incurring other costs. When these chartered flights go back to pick passengers once the Haj is complete, they again travel empty. A better negotation can possibly bring down the charter fare - but one can safely say it would still be higher than the Rs.12,000 being collected now.

Another question to ponder over is political - whether it is worth defending (and continuing) given the propaganda ammunition it gives the organisations like RSS and BJP. These organisations use the haj subsidy issue to canvass support from the Hindu Community (that muslims are being favoured etc). Ending this subsidy would deprive these organisations of an issue to exploit.

Sometimes - it is also argued that the Indian government gives subsidy to Hindu pilgrims and pilgrims of other communities. If this is to refer to the money spent by the government on events like Khumba Mela, we must remember, it is not comparable at all. The money spent there is on security and other arrangements. As pointed out by Mr.Sahabuddin, this is much similar to the money spent by the Saudi Government on security for the pilgrims and other arrangements in Mecca and elsewhere.

Even if it were true that subsidies are indeed being given by various governments to other communities on other trips (to Kailash Mansarover etc), how correct it is to justify one act (of subsidy) - by comparing it with the another (act of subsidy)? Muslims must decide on the pros and cons of the haj subsidy - on its own merit - keeping in mind the religious obligation as well as the economical benefit (most pilgrims who can cough up Rs.80,000 shouldn't find it too difficult to cough up another Rs.20,000) and the political cost (the RSS-BJP-Right Wing propaganda).

In all likelihood, the Courts would still hold it as illegal and ask the government to stop the practice from the coming year. It wouldn't be end of the world. The pilgrims (travelling through Haj Committee) would end up paying about Rs.20,000 more - from next year - than in the previous years. The government may - in order to avoid political damage - may try to circumvent this (could move the Haj Committee Act to Nineth Schedule - making it beyond questions by the Courts etc). But, at the end of the day, it should be clear - it is not worth all this fuss at all. The Muslim community should forego this subsidy. That decision of the community would solve more one than problem - at one stroke.

[Note inserted on 16/12/2006 by the Administrator: Conversion rate for this year's Haj (Hijri 1427) is officially Rs.12.467 per Saudi Riyal]

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