The government on Tuesday abolished the subsidy being given to Haj pilgrims every year. The government said it will use the subsidy funds to empower the minorities. The policy to support Muslims in making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, can be traced back to 1932, when the British enacted the Port Haj Committees Act. In the ensuing decades, the Act has undergone numerous changes. And in recent years it has called for significant criticism from various parties. In 2012, a Supreme Court order directed the Haj subsidy to be gradually phased out in the coming ten years. In 2017, a Central Haj Committee meeting decided to do away with the subsidy by the following year.
What is the Haj subsidy?
The Haj subsidy refers to discounted airfares given by the government-owned airlines, Air India. It also includes assistance to Muslim pilgrims for domestic travel to reach specially designed Haj departure airport terminals, lodging, medical care and meal. Originally, the subsidy was given on air fares of flights between Bombay and Jeddah. Later, additional flight legs were added to the subsidy list. Since 1984, all the traffic for Haj from India to Saudi Arabia has been shared between Air India and Saudi, both of which are the government funded carriers of their respective countries.
The amount charged from each pilgrim after the subsidy varies depending on the category of accommodation and airport charges from the point of embarkation. After the 2012 Supreme Court order to phase out the subsidy in the next ten years, the government had been steadily declining the amount of subsidy offered to Haj pilgrims each year. In 2014, the subsidised air fare charged for Haj, per pilgrim was Rs. 35,000, while the actual amount was anything between Rs. 63,750 and Rs. 1,64,350 depending on the point of boarding. By 2016, the amount paid by each pilgrim had risen to Rs. 45,000. In 2017, the Haj subsidy was cut down by almost 50 per cent of the expected cost.
When was the Haj subsidy started?
The Haj subsidy was first introduced in 1932 when the British government provided for a government funded Haj committee and named Bombay and Calcutta as two ports from where Muslims could embark upon their pilgrimage. The Haj Committees Act along with the Muslim Personal Law were enacted by the government to fulfill Muslim demands in the pre-Partition days. Post independence, in 1959 the government replaced the previous Act. According to the new Act, a committee was created in Bombay to take care of all affairs of the pilgrims, including travel arrangements during the pilgrimage and to cover overhead expenses.
The Committee Act was further modified in 1973 when the mode of travel to Saudi Arabia was changed from sea to air, owing to rising oil prices. Accordingly, the government also increased subsidy to cover the difference between sea and air fares. Till 1995, about 5,000 pilgrims used to travel by sea, while around 19,000 used to travel by air each year. However, in 1995 sea travel was completely discarded and all pilgrims had to use air transport.
What are the criticisms against the Haj subsidy?
The Haj subsidy has come under heavy criticism, particularly because of the monopoly formed by Air India in carrying out the pilgrimage. Allegedly, the government subsidies have resulted in major profits for Air India, benefiting the airlines far more than the pilgrims. According to several critics of the subsidy, if booked months in advance, it is possible to buy cheaper air tickets, thereby doing away with the need for subsidy. Some of the political parties have also called the subsidy as minority appeasement.
What are the other religious pilgrimages that are offered government subsidy in India?
The Haj is not the only religious pilgrimage being funded by the State. A number of other religious tours are supported by the government. For instance, the state and central governments spend considerable amounts on the pilgrim facilities at the four Kumbh melas in Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and Allahabad. The Kailash Manasarovar yatra from North India to the mountains of Tibet is yet another pilgrimage which is organised by the government with arrangements being made for security and health facilities. Last week, the Uttarakhand government agreed to increase subsidy for the Mansarovar pilgrims from Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000.