In 2012, the Supreme Court had ordered that the Hajj pilgrimage subsidy be completely abolished by 2022. The central government has ended it in 2018 itself. This decision has not been taken in a hurry; the decision had been announced last year. The government claims that the move will save Rs. 700 crores, and plans for it to be spent on the education of Muslim women.
Many leaders of the Muslim community have expressed joy claiming that the subsidy was being credited to the bank account of Air India, the national carrier of the country, not to Hajj pilgrims. In fact, they were compelled to travel only by Air India, and the national carrier had a tendency to hike the travel fares drastically to eat up the subsidy meant for Hajj pilgrims. Muslim leaders claimed that on other flights they could have got tickets even cheaper than the subsidized tickets of Air India. However, there is more than this to the total picture. The full truth is that apart from Air India, the national carrier of Saudi Arabia was also used for air travel and a portion of the subsidies to travel could also go to Saudis’ carrier. According to observes, the air tickets received by the subsidized rate were costlier than other competitive airlines.
This year, around two lakh people are traveling to Mecca from India as Hajj pilgrims. Over the last several years, more than one lakh people have been going to Hajj. When more people travel, general principles of economics dictate that the fare should be reduced because no seat is vacant. In the case of the Hajj pilgrimage, this principle economy of scale does not apply. The reason is that there is an existent disparity between the flights that go towards Hajj, and those that return from it. That is, if an airplane flies from Mumbai to Jeddah with a consignment of Hajj pilgrims, it has to come back empty from Jeddah to Mumbai to take another consignment of Hajjis. Since they are chartered planes, they have to charge for the cost incurred on the empty return flights as well. In the same way, when pilgrims start coming back to India after hajj, the planes have to go empty from Mumbai to Jeddah to bring other passengers back. — a plausible reason for soaring ticket prices, possibly misunderstood as an attempt to eat up the given subsidy.
Now, the subsidy has been withdrawn and the option of a sea voyage will be also available for pilgrims. Many are celebrating this decision of the government. Earlier, journey by the sea was common place as far as Hajj pilgrims were concerned. However, after a ship carrying pilgrims met with an accident, the government banned the use of naval transport for the Hajj pilgrimage. With the reopening of this avenue, pilgrims welcome it as it is an inexpensive and more accessible form of transport.
The abolishment of Hajj subsidies seems to be a good move. Even Muslim leaders had been demanding its removal, claiming that it was un-Islamic also, because the Quran says that a Muslim should perform hajj only through his own earned money and that those who cannot afford the pilgrimage are not required to do it. Hindu leaders were also criticizing the subsidy given for hajj as a policy of appeasement towards Muslims.
Copying the subsidy policy of hajj, some state governments are providing subsidies to Hindu pilgrims as well. In a secular state, it is not expected of the government to be spending money on pilgrims’ travel.
It is the duty of the government to develop travel sites and other travel infrastructures to make the pilgrimage hassle-free. This kind of development is also necessary to promote the pilgrim tourism industry, but it is wrong to provide for the travel expenses of passengers. Now, state governments should follow the central government and withdraw all kinds of subsidies extended to cover the travel expenses of the pilgrims.
-Contributed by Kriti
Picture Credits: siasat.com