Women above 45 years, unaccompanied by a male, may be able to go for Haj in groups of four if the Ministry of Minority Affairs accepts the recommendation of a committee formed to look at the Haj policy. In a report submitted to the ministry on Saturday, the committee has also endorsed the plan to phase out Haj subsidies, as per a 2012 directive of the Supreme Court.
Under the current Haj policy, women who do not have a male escort are not allowed to go on the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Called ‘Mehram’, an unmarriageable kin, the male escort is an essential feature of the policy, and a separate quota — of 200 now, which the committee recommends raising to 500 — is kept for women whose “only Mehram” gets selected for Haj a particular year but the woman has failed to complete the formalities on time.
The committee has recommended: “The conditions of male Mehram accompanying ladies should be insisted only for ladies below 45 years of age. Ladies above 45 years of age, who wish to go for Haj but who do not have a male Mehram and their school of thought permits should be allowed to travel in groups of four or more.”
Led by retired IAS officer Afzal Amanullah, the committee has, among its members, Justice S S Parkar, retired judge of Bombay High Court; retired IRS officer and former Haj Committee chairman Qaiser Shamim; and Kamal Faruqui, chartered accountant and a Muslim scholar.
The recommendation comes close on the heels of the Supreme Court order holding triple talaq illegal, and if accepted can be another step towards gender parity among Muslims. India’s Haj quota is 1,70,025 at present.
On reduction of Haj subsidy, the committee observed that the existing phase-out plan should be adhered to and the number of embarkation points reduced from 21 to nine.
Looking at ways to phase out subsidy and reducing costs for individual pilgrims, the central government is looking at starting a sea journey to Jeddah. On this, the committee observed, “…we suggest that a global expression of interest from vessel owners having newer vessels of 4000+ capacity, who are willing to dedicate their ships for carrying pilgrims during the three-month Haj season each year from Mumbai to Jeddah, may be called by MoMA.”
The committee made detailed recommendations about the quality and location of accommodation for pilgrims, the volunteers (khadim ul Hujjaj) who guide groups of pilgrims, facilities available to pilgrims on the ground, and on flight. It also dealt at length on the eligibility of private tour operators and monitoring of their quality of service.
The committee said Haj quota should be distributed in a 70:30 ratio among the Haj committee and private tour operators. It also recommended that the Haj committee should be exempted from income tax, GST, local taxes, etc, as should the air charter service that transports pilgrims.