End to Haj subsidy: A gutsy decision

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End to Haj subsidy:  A gutsy decision

By withdrawing subsidies for Haj pilgrimage, the Modi Government has taken a courageous decision and sent a message that it desires to be even-handed while dealing with religious and social groups

The Narendra Modi Government’s decision to withdraw the subsidy given to Haj pilgrims is the first major initiative to reverse a policy which reeked of pseudo-secularism and minority appeasement. Although most major political parties have been voted to power at the Centre over the last seven decades, no party or coalition of parties had the courage to touch this issue, lest it be seen as hurting Muslim sentiment.

The Modi Government, however, has decided to bite the bullet, specially after a Supreme Court verdict of 2012, which directed the Government to end the practice in 10 years. The court’s judgement has given the Government the moral and legal right to take this step and as per the apex court’s directive, the Government has announced that the money spent on Haj subsidy would be utilised for social welfare. These funds will be used for education and other welfare measures for Muslim women and girls.

The amount of subsidy had risen from about Rs 10 crore in the 1990s to Rs 836 crore in 2012. The number of pilgrims had also risen from about 20,000 to about 1.50 lakh. Following the judgement, the Centre has brought down the quantum of subsidy to about Rs 400 crore.

The Haj subsidy has for long been a bone of contention between the supporters of the Congress and its fellow travelers and those backing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological allies. Parties belonging to the first category, who woo the minority vote, have always been vary of touching issues like this, whereas those backing the BJP have argued that this policy of subsidy is the greatest symbol of pseudo-secular practices that militates against genuinely secular and democratic traditions, which demand equal treatment for all religious groups.         

While directing the Government to end Haj Subsidy, the Supreme Court said that it did not claim to speak on behalf of all the Muslims of the country and that it would be presumptuous on its part to try to tell the Muslims what is for them a good or bad religious practice.

“Nevertheless, we have no doubt that a very large majority of Muslims applying to the Haj committee for going to Haj would not be aware of the economics of their pilgrimage and 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”.

Quoting from the holy scriptures, the court felt that subsidy was not a good idea. It advised the Government to end this subsidy in 10 years. It said the subsidy money may be more profitably used for the upliftment of the community in education and other indices of social development.

The Government’s engagement with the Haj pilgrimage has had various ramifications and driven the Government towards making policy on a variety of issues. For example, the Government used to send a goodwill delegation to Haj every year since 1967. The court observed that following the Indo-Pak war of 1965, Pakistan tried to use the Haj piligrimage for anti-India propaganda and, therefore, India began sending a delegation to counter that propaganda.

This problem no longer exists because Pakistan does not send a goodwill delegation any more. This also became an issue because of the allegations of arbitrariness in the composition of the delegation. The court said, it completely failed to see how even the original purpose can be served “by sending such a large, unwieldy, amorphous and ramdomly selected delegation”.  

It, therefore, directed the Government to stop sending a goodwill delegation to Haj. Instead, the Indian Ambassador in Saudi Arabia could put together a group of distinguished Muslims on the pilgrimage to represent India appropriately. This would be better than “a motley delegation whose members are selected on irrelevant considerations”.

Second, the Government has got drawn into litigation over allotment of quotas to Private Transport Operators (PTOs). Even here, the apex court has had to step in. There is a bilateral agreement between the Government of India and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as per which the latter fixes the number of pilgrims, who can come from India for Haj every year. Prior to 2002, Saudi Arabia allocated a quota for PTOs. After 2002, it became mandatory for all these private operators to come through their respective Governments.

The apex court noted in its interim order of 2011 that the number of private transport operators rose from 293 to 567 in about six years. It said, the PTOs wanted to be registered to handle Haj pilgrims because it was “mainly a question of more profitable business”. Under the agreement between the Governments, no PTO can be given a quota of less than 50 pilgrims.”

Normally, a quota of 50 pilgrims would mean, on an average and by conservative standards, a profit of Rs 35-50 lakh. In other words, the court summarised that any private operator, who gets himself registered easily earns Rs 35 to Rs 50 lakh in about two months “and may then relax comfortably for the rest of the year without any great deal of business from any other source”.       

The court said Haj consists of a number of parts and each one of them has to be performed in a rigid, tight and time-bound schedule. There were also reports of unscrupulous fly by night operators coming into the business and parceling of the quotas they had secured to other private operators. There were also reports of the operators abandoning pilgrims who met with accidents or took ill during the pilgrimage. The court, therefore, felt that in the interests of the Haj pilgrims, reasonable conditions need to be enforced for registration of private operators.

Given the overall Budget of the Union Government, Rs 800 crore may not be a big deal, but the abolition of Haj subsidy sends out a strong message that the Union Government desires to be even-handed while dealing with various religious and social groups. The Government is also empowered now to stop sending goodwill delegations to Saudi Arabia. These measures will enable the Government to exit from activities that are purely religious in nature. This is also one step forward towards harmony between the majority and the minority and to ensure that the Government remains committed to ‘Sab ka saath, Sab ka vikas’.

(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati)

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