Haj Subsidy: Why So Much Ruckus?

Prof. Maheboob Sayyad

In the verdict of May 8, the Supreme Court had directed the government to taper off and eventually stop Haj subsidy given to Muslim pilgrims.  In fact for all practical purposes, no subsidy had been given to pilgrims at all. In this regard, one should remember that way back in 1990s Government closed down sea route and a strong rumor was spread about Haj subsidy since then. As such a bench of justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai had quoted Quran to justify doing away with the subsidy, which was around Rs 685 crores in 2011, noting that many Muslims would not be very “comfortable” to know that their Haj is funded to a large extent by the government and as such had directed to phase out Haj subsidy within a period of 10 years. In the same judgment honorable judges directed the Govt to reduce the number of members of Haj Committee from 10-12 to 2. As a matter of fact, the judgement fulfills the aspirations of constitution to have a secular state is very important and highly praiseworthy. The Supreme Court must be congratulated for making a rational judgment on the issue of subsidy for Haj travel.

The elite of the society generally tries to divide the working class on the basis of caste and religion so that this oppressed class will not revolt against them. As a part of this strategy, party like Congress spreads the rumor that they are the real protectors of minority community like Muslims and because of Party’s efforts, the Muslim community is safe in this country.  In addition, the Muslim fundamentalists use the slogan Islam is in danger to seek sympathy of Muslim community. In fact, none of them has any sympathy or compassionate feelings  for poor in the community.

Instead of solving the problems about minority welfare, and providing them with proper education and health care, BJP and Shiv Sena like political and social parties hold responsible the Congress party for its preferential treatment towards Muslims. Neither of the parties has any empathy towards Muslim community. One thing is amply clear that under this pretext every one of them had fulfilled their vested interest. The statement of Congress party, “we subsidize the Haj travel expenses” and the statements made by BJP – Sena combine, “undue favoritism is bestowed upon the Muslim community,” both appear to be statements made in empty air. No subsidy hade been given to and no favoritism has been shown to Muslims. This is just a gossip spread all over the country by Saffron Brigade. Instead of targeting the real issues of this community, the ruling elite party is satisfied by taking the pseudo issues. Haj subsidy may top the list of such pseudo issues.

Till early 1990s, Haj pilgrims had a choice whether to travel by ship or by air. Travel by ship was less costly compared to travel by air. Those who can afford use to travel by air to save the time and hardship of sea journey and majority of travelers resort to travel by ship. There used to be three ships earmarked for Haj travel during those days. However during 1990-91, PV Narasinh Rao’s Govt adopted new economic policy under the pressure from IMF, World Bank and other multinational giants to please these agencies. This had an effect on Haj travel too. Govt started phasing out the sea travel and also scrapped the ship building sector. US pressurized the Indian Govt to purchase giant aircraft manufactured by Boing and Air Bus to benefit the parent aero industries in US andEurope.  There was no other means of travel to Haj except by costliest air travel.

There was hue and cry by Haj pilgrims of rising cost of the air travel. To pacify the dissatisfied Haj pilgrims, Govt agreed to pay the difference in fares by ship and air. In this way, the term Haj subsidy came into existence. In fact if the facilities of ship travel would no have been withdrawn, most of the pilgrims who would like to save the money would have traveled by ship and those who can afford would have traveled by air. This would have certainly saved the Govt burden of paying the difference. However to please theUScapitalists, Govt ofIndiahas to resort to such a cumbersome methodology.

In this policy making decision process nowhere Muslims appeared on the scene. The demands of the Haj pilgrims were genuine and just. That may be the reason why the subsequent governments, including BJP combine NDA, did not scrap or interfere with Haj subsidy. Unless one understands the complete background, there is no point in crying wolf. The memory of the public is too short. That is why such a  is raised over the SC judgment.

The new liberalization policy gave birth to a large number of malpractices. Haj subsidy is also one of them. For example, Govt conveyed SC that in 2011 Govt had spent Rs 685 crores on Haj subsidy. But when the information was sought underRTI, the subsidy amount quoted was Rs 605 crores. Why there is a difference of 80 crores? From this anomaly, it appears that the difference must be much more than the quoted figures. The Govt quotes that during 2011, 124092 pilgrims visited Haj after the approval of Haj Committee, the Govt body which approves the subsidy. It also quotes the subsidy amount given to each pilgrim is to the tune of Rs 38800. The simple calculations shows, 124092 x 38800 = 4814769600 ≈ 482 crores. But Govt quotes 685 crores. There is a difference of 203 crores for just one year. Besides, there is no mention under which clause this subsidy amount was decided. There appears to be no logic in the figures quoted by the Govt. For example, in the year 2008, the subsidy amount was Rs 60640, almost the double amount given during 2011. From this we can safely infer that the politician and administration nexus had gulped thousands and thousand crores. But the blame is conveniently passed on to Muslim community quietly. Haj pilgrims were never benefited by this subsidy. As such this subsidy should be stopped immediately without waiting for next 5-10 years to scrap the same.

Generally the air ticket fare to Haj travel is around 15 -17 thousands. But during the season, these fares are hiked to 55 – 60 thousands.  The Air India, the airline managed by Govt of India has monopoly over the air travel of Haj pilgrims. Whatever may be the hike in fare for Haj pilgrims; all the money goes back to Govt treasury only. When one travels in the groups or books the tickets quite in advance many airlines give huge discounts in fares. But AirIndiarefuses to give any concessions to Haj pilgrims. Instead it overcharges many a times. Govt should invite tenders from competing airline companies, so that Haj pilgrims will be benefited immensely. 

In this regard we may think about travel by train toMeccaand Madina as an alternate mode of travel. The train travel will be much cheaper compared to air travel. The countries likeIndia,Pakistan,Bangla Desh,ChinaandIranhave their own rail network reaching up to their borders. If only it is possible to connect all these networks, the rail travel to Haj pilgrims will be in reality. The pilgrims can travel by paying very less fare. But this is not going to happen as long asIndiaacts like 51st state of US of America.   In the past,Iran,PakistanandIndiasigned a pact to allow construction of gas pipe line directly linkingIranandIndia. But this project is already facing the troubles. The same fate will be met for Haj pilgrimage by rail. Unless there is pressure from public, the Govt will never act.

The political games played and the corruption aspects behind the Haj subsidy should be stopped with immediate effect. On one side Govt shows inability to undertake development due to paucity of funds and on the other side, we read the stories of scams after scams where thousands of crores are pocketed by way of corruption. Instead by doling out the money as Haj subsidy, the same can be spent on education and health care of this minority community. Govt should contemplate implementing the suggestions made by Rajendra Sachar Committee and Rangnath Mishra Commission in this regard.