The Union Ministry of Minority Affairs has decided to set up a six-member committee to look at ways to make the Haj pilgrimage economical, even without government subsidy. While the Supreme Court had in 2012 asked the government to look at ways to phase out the subsidy in 10 years, the timing of the committee will raise uncomfortable political questions for the BJP ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections.
Sources in the ministry said: “It is not that we want to end the subsidy, but the committee will look at modalities of how to make best use of the subsidy, explore how Hajis can travel at a lower cost even without subsidy. It is at a preliminary level, so it is too early to give names.” The ministry recently formed an 11-member committee under former bureaucrat Afzal Amanullah to look at the setting up of minority universities. The subsidy is around Rs 650 crore.
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In 2012, the Supreme Court directed the government to phase out Haj subsidy in 10 years, saying the amount could be used for social and educational development of the Muslim community. The government of that time had not been amenable to the idea and had argued that allowing private airlines to take care of Haj travel would leave the Hajis in the hands of market forces. This would certainly expose them to unregulated fares.
The Bench led by Justice Aftab Alam had said that with over 1 lakh pilgrims visiting Saudi Arabia, any airliner would be willing to allow lower fares. Incidentally, Saudi Arabia, which had cut India’s Haj quota by 20 per cent, has restored it. Following the visit of Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to that country, the number of Haj pilgrims from India is likely to go up to 1,75,000. While that is something the government has been quick to publicise, any talk of doing away with the Haj subsidy would have instant repercussions on the elections in UP, where Muslims form about 20 per cent of the electorate.