Apex court observations on Haj subsidy
Key elements of the Supreme Court order Tuesday on removing the Haj subsidy in the next 10 years:
* Economics of the pilgrimage - 'This court has no claim to speak on behalf of all the Muslims of the country and it will be presumptuous for us 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.'
* Cost of Subsidy - The Haj subsidy in the past 19 years increased from Rs.10.51 crore in 1994 to Rs.685 crore in 2011 on account of increase in Haj pilgrims and the hike in the cost of travel. In 1994, the Haj subsidy was Rs.17,000 per person which has gone upto Rs.54,800 in 2011. The number of pilgrims going for Haj in 1994 was as low as 21,035 which rose to 125,000 in 2011.
The court noted that normally the airfare from India to Jeddah is Rs.25,000 but it increases on account of the Saudi Arabian government's policy that planes flying the Hajis would return with zero load.
Therefore, the government charges reasonable fare from the pilgrims and the additional fare charged because of the Haj specific logistics is paid by the government to the airline. During the Haj of 2011, each pilgrim was charged Rs.16,000 towards airfare and the additional amount of Rs.38,000 per Haji is what is termed 'subsidy'.
* Goodwill Haj delegation - The primary purpose of sending the goodwill delegation, according to the government is 'to convey goodwill on the auspicious occasion of Haj to the government of Saudi Arabia as well as to the Indian pilgrims'.
The delegation interacts with the Haj pilgrims from India, understands their issues and takes up the same with the Saudi Arabian authorities.
India first sent a goodwill delegation in 1967 with three members. Till 1987, the number of its members remained under 10. Thereafter, the size of the delegation started steadily increasing and in 1997 it had 31 members.
In 2005, there were 36 members in the delegation, in 2010 there were 30 and in 2011 its strength marginally shrunk to 27.
The court noted that the government's affidavit did not disclose any criteria or guidelines on the basis of which people were selected for being included in the goodwill delegation.
'On the basis of the material brought to our notice, we have no doubt that the way people are nominated as members of the goodwill delegation is in complete violation of Article 14 of the constitution.'
It is no secret that after the 1965 war, Pakistan tried to use even the Haj pilgrimage for anti-India propaganda and the purpose of sending the goodwill delegation was to meet the anti-India propaganda.
The reason for which the delegation was first sent has long ceased to exist...in the changed circumstances the delegation serves other objects and purpose.
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