The Centre has abolished the Haj subsidy, Minorities Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqi said on Tuesday. He said the Supreme Court had in 2012 asked the Centre to phase out the subsidy by 2022, but the Narendra Modi government has decided to implement the decision in 2018 itself as a symbol of its commitment towards “empowerment without appeasement” of the minority communities.
Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said the Haj subsidy, contrary to the perception being constructed, didn’t benefit the Hajis, but governments were “pleasing” flight operators, particularly Air India. He said a division Bench headed by Justice J Aftab Alam had in 2012 asked the Centre to abolish the subsidy by 2022, and use that money for welfare of minorities, particularly for their education, and that the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government had brought down the allocation for Haj subsidy.
Naqvi said the Centre would use the money for welfare of minority communities. He said a record number of 175,000 Muslims would undertake the pilgrimage this year from India. He said the Centre had spent over Rs 2.5 billion last year towards Haj subsidy.
“It is part of the Modi government’s efforts to empower minorities with dignity and without appeasement,” Naqvi said. Asked if the subsidy withdrawal would make the cost of the pilgrimage too high for many Muslims, Naqvi said the government was making efforts to bring it down.
The Saudi Arabian government has agreed to allow Indians to go on Haj via sea and officials of the two countries will work out the modalities, he said. The sea route is likely to be much cheaper. He said Haj pilgrims from certain regions would be free to choose their port of departure and this would bring down the cost by up to 70 per cent on some routes. The minister said, in a first, over 1,300 women would go on Haj without a mehram (male guardian), a practice done away with from this year. Woman Haj assistants would accompany them and the government has made arrangements for their stay in Saudi Arabia, he said.
Naqvi said his ministry was organising an event in Lucknow on January 18 in which Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath would speak on “empowering minorities without appeasement”. Minority affairs ministers of nine states will attend the event. He detailed a host of measures, such as providing jobs and job opportunities to 850,000 minority youth and scholarships to 18.3 million students, to claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government has been working to empower minorities.
Congress leader Azad said his party didn’t have any issues with the government abolishing Haj subsidy. “It was the airlines which benefited, not the common pilgrim,” he said. Azad said the normal fare from India to Jeddah charged by any airline was between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000, but the airlines and operators charged Rs 70,000 to Rs 75,000.
A former civil aviation minister and also a former member of the Central Haj Committee, Azad explained the genesis of the subsidy. He said until the early 1980s the pilgrims would travel to Jeddah by the sea route. When these ships became too old and certified unfit in 1982, the government instead of buying new ships decided that pilgrims should travel to Jeddah by air and since the sea route was much cheaper, the government would subsidise the air travel.
Azad said the UPA government had taken a Cabinet decision, subsequent to the Supreme Court order, to reduce the Haj subsidy, which in 2012 was around Rs 6.5 billion.