Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Supreme Court Strikes Down Hajj Policy: Government Asked To End Subsidy Within 10 Years

The Supreme Court has struck down the federal government's policy of giving subsidies to Hajj pilgrims and directed that it be progressively "eliminated" within a period of 10 years. It said it will look into the functioning of Hajj Committee of India and it process for selecting people for Hajj pilgrimage.

The apex court was hearing an appeal filed by the government challenging a Bombay High Court judgment which had directed the Ministry of External Affairs to allow certain private operators (travel agents) to handle 800 of the 11,000 pilgrims earmarked under the VIP quota subsidized by the government.

On private operators, the Bench upheld the government policy for 2012, observing that it did not warrant any interference by the Supreme Court.

Citing “Verse-97 in Surah-3” of the Quran, the apex court stated that according to the verse, the Hajj pilgrimage is only permitted to those who can afford the expenses for “one’s conveyance and provision for residence” in Mecca.

Pilgrims and Travel Cost
Quoting statistics provided by the government for the past 19 years, the Bench pointed out that the subsidy had been increasing every year. This was on account of increase in the number of pilgrims and the travel cost.

In 1994, the number of pilgrims from India was as low as 21,035 and the subsidy amounted to Rs 10.51 crore. In 2011, the number of pilgrims went up to 1.25 lakh and the subsidy amounted to Rs 685 crore.

More than 1.5 lakh pilgrims performed Hajj paying for their own expenses without availing of the subsidy, the Bench pointed out.

The Bench, however, acknowledged that the air fare to Jeddah for the Hajjis was more than double the normal fare during other seasons due to regulations imposed by the Saudi Arabian authorities. In 2011, the two-way air fare for the Hajjis was Rs 58,800 against the normal air fare of Rs 25,000. On account of government subsidy, each pilgrim was charged Rs 16,000 as air fare.

Federal Government’s Plea
The bench while hearing the plea of the federal government had expanded the purview of the plea and decided to look into the legality of the government's policy on granting subsidies to Hajj pilgrims. During the hearing in the case, the government had defended the policy of giving subsidies to the Hajj pilgrims and had said it had framed guidelines so that people get subsidies only once in their lifetime.

In an affidavit, the government had told the court that it has decided to restrict Hajj pilgrimage at government subsidy to Muslims only as a "once in a lifetime" affair as against the existing policy of "once in five years." It had said the new guidelines have been framed to ensure that priority is given to those applicants who have never performed Hajj.

The government, however, had refrained from disclosing the amount of subsidy being incurred by it for 2012, saying, "The exact figure in respect of the travel subsidy to the pilgrims going through Hajj Committee of India for 2012 will be known after the Hajjis completed their Hajj journey and return to India."

The apex court had earlier expressed its dismay at the practice of sending official delegations to accompany the pilgrims and had asked the Centre to furnish entire details regarding Hajj subsidy, as also about the criteria adopted.

The court further observed: "These goodwill delegations need to be scrapped altogether. They are no longer relevant. Even a team of 9 to 10 persons is not required. The court had also pulled up the federal government's practice of ‘politicizing’ Hajj by permitting official delegations to accompany the pilgrims, for which the government offers huge subsidy, saying, It is a bad religious practice."

Welcome Decision
There was near-unanimity among the leaders of the political class in welcoming the verdict, with a few even demanding immediate scrapping of the subsidy and suggesting use of the money for the educational needs of Muslims.

Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, an ally of the UPA said: “Why wait for 10 years to scrap it. It should be done away with this year itself, because it does not benefit the pilgrims. In the name of giving subsidy, the government has been fooling people till now, for, it has been investing the money in Air India.”

Senior BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said: “The BJP welcomes the verdict but we are of the opinion that the government should continue to help out the pilgrims with basic services.”
There was no need to club the educational needs of Muslims with the Hajj subsidy. “The government should try to implement the schemes for providing scholarship to Muslim girls, which are not getting properly implemented in the first place.”

Communist Party of India leader D. Raja said giving subsidy to any community was a policy decision and the Central government needed to explain its position.
Raja said: “There have been several court verdicts against the policy decisions of the government and it is for the government to explain.”

Referring to Law Minister Salman Khurshid's reaction that the government was considering the Hajj subsidy and discussions had taken place for its rollback, Raja said this was a “vague” stand.

Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella organization of several Muslim groups, said: “The so-called Hajj subsidy is of no use to the pilgrims. We never asked for it.”

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