Haj subsidy: End of an anachronism

Haj subsidy: End of an anachronism

The govt began to subsidise the airfare at the rate of Rs 80 crore a year. It ballooned to Rs 605 crore last year.

The Supreme Court’s directive to the government to gradually phase out the subsidy on Haj airfares is a welcome step towards something that had become anachronistic in an era of market economy.

It is perhaps a sign of our times that issues that are likely to produce inconvenient -- and therefore unpopular -- decision are being laid at the doors of the Supreme Court rather than emerging from the legislature or the executive. While several sections from among Muslims had been demanding the withdrawal of subsidy for long, more of them have been availing of it under the mistaken belief that it is a discount. 

The Central government had doled out as much as Rs 605 crore in subsidy to the Air India to ferry 115,000 Haj pilgrims from 21 destinations within India to Jeddah during the Haj season last year by chartered flights and the costs are ever increasing. It was first introduced in late 1980s when the highly economical sea voyages by steamships of government-owned Mogul Line Limited were withdrawn. The government began to subsidise the airfare at the rate of Rs 80 crore a year. It ballooned to Rs 605 crore last year. An Indian pilgrim was paying merely Rs 16,000 towards the two-way airfare. This was even lower than half of what he would normally be required to pay to travel in a commercial flight.

Different dynamics

Moreover, the dynamics of Haj flights are altogether different. They involve four trips by the aircraft. Each flight that carries pilgrims to Jeddah has to return empty and again fly empty to Jeddah after 40 days to bring back the pilgrims following conclusion of Haj. This is so because the Saudi government does not allow normal passengers to use the Haj flights as chartered flights are handled by special terminals.  

A subsidised travel to Haj is theologically inconceivable. The Quran clearly lays down that one should undertake the Haj pilgrimage only if he/she could afford the cost. A Haj performed with begged, borrowed or ill-gotten money is not acceptable. it is not mandatory even for an indebted person. Subsidy coming from the public exchequer of a secular state also falls into the undesirable category of funds for the purpose.

Indeed the subsidy has, on one hand encouraged repeat performances of the pilgrimage. On  the other, it has prompted other communities to ask for similar subsidies for various kind of yatras and Delhi government is providing Rs 5,000 to every pilgrim undertaking the Mansarovar Yatra to Tibet (now in China). The apex court’s observation that “If all the facts are made known, a good many of the pilgrims would not be very comfortable in the knowledge that their Haj is funded to a substantial extent by the government” is therefore very apt.

Most Indian Muslims labour under the impression that subsidy is a discounted fare. A discounted fare simply could not be of this grand scale. No airline could offer so huge a discount on an overseas journey that entails four trips by an aircraft. Perhaps no airline within India can offer a ticket on Bangalore-Guwahati round trip for as much as a pilgrim is currently paying for Guwahati-Jeddah round trip.

Subsidies are quite understandable for food, fertiliser or fuel in Indian context. But in a secular polity, providing huge subsidy for air travel to pilgrims of a particular community does not make sense. Under a secular polity, the government could have a role as a facilitator of religious activity but should not be seen as a subsidiser. It is fine if the government runs special trains for Kumbh mela, or urs at Ajmer Dargah or even provides civic amenities at Har ki Pawri. But subsidy for individual religious rites is unthinkable.

No Muslim/Islamic state offers subsidy to Haj pilgrims.  An Indian Haj pilgrim pays only Rs16,000 towards the flight fare from any Indian city (even as farthest as Guwahati) to Jeddah while a Pakistani pilgrim flying from Karachi or Quetta pays Pakistani Rs 61,000 (equivalent to Indian Rs 35,435) even while Pakistan lies to the west of India closer to the holy places.

While it is good that subsidy on airfare has been scrapped, there could be innovative ways by which Haj travel could be economised. Malaysia provides a model in Tabung Haji Pilgrim Board where savings of Haj aspirants are channellised into investment to return them with profits when they intend to undertake the journey.

Even while withdrawing the subsidy, the Government of India could think of privatising the entire operations and lend money to the central Haj committee to buy planes to ferry pilgrims to Jeddah and lease out the carriers to others during off season.

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