Weighing in on Haj policy

Weighing in on Haj policy

The draft of the New Haj Policy 2018-2022 seeks to reorient the management of the annual Haj pilgrimage from India. Released on October 7 by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, the policy attempts to completely do away with the State subsidy, bring in some reforms to facilitate even single women to perform the Islamic ritual and introduce measures to make the selection of pilgrims more transparent.
 The Haj pilgrimage is the most complex organisational task undertaken by the Government of India beyond its borders. A little over 1.7 lakh people from India join the moving congregation around the holy sites in Saudi Arabia every year. This is the third largest contingent, after those from Indonesia and Pakistan.

Though the pilgrimage is confined to five to six designated days, the managerial exercise spans over the entire year. Of every three Indians who annually apply for Haj under the Haj Committee of India (HCoI) quota, only one succeeds in securing a seat in the 300-plus chartered flights that ferry 1.29 lakh pilgrims from various destinations to Jeddah.

The ministry has placed the draft of the policy in the public domain for discussion. Ever since sea voyages were replaced by chartered flights in the early 1990s, the Government of India has been subsidising the airfare. But under a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, the subsidy is being gradually phased out. It has come down from Rs 600 crore to currently Rs 200 crore. The new policy rightly highlights the need to do away with it totally. It is perhaps towards this objective that the embarkation points for pilgrims have been recommended to be brought down from the current 21 to nine.

Yet, it is felt that the exclusion of Srinagar and Guwahati will amount to total neglect of two distinct regions, namely Jammu and Kashmir and the North-eastern states. It will be advisable to retain these far flung regions. The HCoI can increase airfares taking into account total mileage from each destination.

The policy also hints at possible reintroduction of sea voyages and seeks interest from international bidders to offer the service. The objective to make the pilgrimage affordable for the average Indian is indeed noble, but the era of passenger sea voyages has passed, except for luxury sea-liners for which tariffs are hefty and the purpose is recreation.

It is also erroneous to expect that sea voyages between Mumbai and Jeddah (distance 2,515 nautical miles or 4,527 km) could be covered in three days. Generally, very sturdy ships can cruise at a speed of 15 nautical miles an hour. Modern technology has not been able to enhance the speed of the sea vessels in any appreciable measure.

Given this speed, no ship can traverse the distance in less than seven days. Add to this the hassle of travelling to and stay at Mumbai from various cities for say a couple of days prior to departure, etc. The idea is best given up. Moreover, Saudi authorities are unlikely to entertain ships any longer.

It may also be recalled that ships were cancelled earlier because they had become a source of misuse and corrupt practices. Sea voyages being low-cost, organised gangs had begun human trafficking, by taking poor people from West Bengal to the holy sites for begging during the pilgrimage. The observation of a former chairman of the Haj Committee of India, Md Ameen Khandwani, is also worthy of consideration. He had asked: How come people who cannot afford the airfare go by sea and return with four-fold more luggage?

The proposal to allow women above 45 years to travel in a group of four without a Mehram — a male whom a female cannot marry such as her father, son or brother — is a step towards gender parity. This will allow aged spinsters, widows and those whose husbands have already done the Hajj, to fulfill their lifetime ambition to perform the pilgrimage. Regardless of its Sharia-compliance, the private tour operators do anyway take such women on pilgrimage in large groups. The Saudi authorities have maintained an attitude of benign ignorance and allow them. 

The draft policy calls for abolition of the special quota (for 500) applicants who are past the age of 70 and whose applications for Hajj could not find a chance through drawing of the lots four times. Going by the average life expectancy and health condition of an Indian, it is advisable to retain this special quota in order to offer them a chance to fulfill their cherished dream.

One category

It is quite in order that the policy calls for creation of just one category of accommodation for Haj Committee pilgrims during the 40-day stay. So far, there were three categories with differential tariffs, depending upon the level of comfort. Since 30% quota for the pilgrims is being reserved for registered private tour operators, those looking for ease and comfort could always opt for them.

The policy also makes it mandatory for all pilgrims to buy the coupons for sacrifice of animals from the Haj Committee. It may not be acceptable to all. Certain categories of Hajis would like to forgo the sacrifice (Qurbani) and instead fast for seven days as permitted under the provisions of the Sharia. It may be left to the individual’s choice.

Overall, the policy is in line with the changes that have occurred in recent times. It urges the Government of India to assign the Consul General’s position in the Jeddah consulate to the Ministry of Minority Affairs. The MEA can take a call on this. The policy very rightly recommends better training and selection of more able-bodied volunteers as Khadimul Hujjaj (service corps for pilgrims). 

(The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist)

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