Government on Monday promised to bring in significant improvement in facilities for Haj pilgrims and request Saudi Arabia to withdraw 20 per cent cut in India’s quota for the annual pilgrimage.
Acknowledging that there have been shortcomings in arrangement for the pilgrims, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also criticised Air India for charging Rs 1.54 lakh as ticket cost per pilgrim from those going from Srinagar against around Rs 62,800 for those who had gone from other designated airports. Addressing the All India Annual Conference for Haj, Swaraj identified accommodation for pilgrims as a major issue and said there was a need to think about a long-term solution to the issue and indicated that government may go for having own accommodation for Indian pilgrims in Mecca and neighbouring areas.
“Can we develop some complex in the area in cooperation with Saudi Government. They can be used for Haj pilgrimage for three months and for remaining nine months, people going or Umrah and Ziyarat can stay there,” Swaraj said.
The External Affairs Minister also said there were Indian properties in Mecca before independence and government will enquire what happened to them.
“According to my knowledge, a large number of Indian properties were there in Mecca Madina before Independence, which are not there today. We need to inquire that what happened to the properties donated for Hajis,” she said, adding, “Our government will soon get it inquired.”
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She said contractors, who had acted against contract or were negligent in offering services to the pilgrims in Mecca and adjoining areas, should be blacklisted and buildings should be taken from other contractors.
On cut in Haj quota from last year’s 1.70 lakh to 1.36 lakh in the current year, she said the issue will be taken up with Saudi Arabia.
“Most of the people get the opportunity to go to Mecca for Haj only once in their entire lifetime. People deposit money for years to go to Haj pilgrims. Our effort will be to make the journey of pilgrims comfortable,” Swaraj said.
The External Affairs Minister said often Haj pilgrims face difficulty due to delay or cancellation of Haj flights and asked Air India to improve services at all the 12 embarkation point given to it.
“I was told that out of 12 given to Air India, eight were given on contract to private airlines and whose aircraft were old. We will not allow that kind of risk.
“I was surprised to know that Air India had last year charged 1.54 lakh as ticket cost per pilgrim for those who had taken flight from Srinagar when the cost from other embarkation points was around Rs 62,802. It was a burden for pilgrims from Kashmir. We will try to ensure justice to them,” she said.
“There is lack of proper facilities for pilgrims in buildings in Mecca and other adjoining areas for pilgrims. We would like our consulate and Haj Committee of India to ensure all basic facilities in the buildings,” she said.
The External Affairs Minister felt the Haj Committee of India should also handle issues relating to travel of pilgrims who go to Mecca for Umrah and if required amendment in Haj Act should be examined after consulting experts.
Resolving to improve the facilities, she said, “I have seen many times that Haji goes with happiness and comes back disappointed.”