SC strikes down Haj subsidy
New Delhi, May 8
“We remind ourselves that the holy Koran in verse 97 in Surah 3, Al-e-Imran ordains as under: In it are manifest signs (for example), the Maqam (place) of Ibrahim (Abraham); whosoever enters it, he attains security. And Haj (pilgrimage to Makkah) to the House (Ka’bah) is a duty that mankind owes to Allah, those who can afford the expenses (for one’s conveyance, provision and residence,” a Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Desai said in a 33-page order.
Immediately after citing the verse, the Bench said: “We, therefore, direct the Central Government to progressively reduce the amount of subsidy so as to completely eliminate it within a period of 10 years from today.”
The Bench said it was passing the order despite the fact that the SC had earlier ruled that grant of subsidy for Haj was “constitutionally valid”.
“Nevertheless, we are of the view that Haj subsidy is something that is best done away with,” the Bench held. The Bench said many pilgrims were perhaps not aware of the subsidy element and “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 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.
Over 1.5 lakh pilgrims performed Haj 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 Hajis 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 Hajis 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.
“We see no justification for charging from the pilgrims an amount that is much lower than even the normal air fare for a return journey to Jeddah,” the Bench remarked.
The SC also said: “We are quite clear that the present practice of sending goodwill Haj delegation must come to stop. If the government of India wishes to send a message of goodwill to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the occasion of Haj, it may send a leader and a deputy leader and if there be any need to present any group from India for any formal event in the course of Haj, the leader may, in consultation with the Indian Ambassador and Consul General, constitute a group of 10 Indians from among the very large number of Indian pilgrims who are there at their own expense.”
The Bench passed the order while hearing two appeals against a Bombay High Court verdict on travel agents handling the Haj. The apex court has expanded the scope of the appeal to go into the entire gamut of the pilgrimage.
“In this interim order, we have primarily dealt with the issues of private operators, Haj subsidy and the goodwill Haj delegation. There are other issues which we propose to deal with in due course,” the Bench said.
On private operators (travel agents), the Bench upheld the government policy for 2012, observing that it did not warrant any interference by the SC.
The court also asked the government not to include more than two of its representatives in the PM’s goodwill delegation n
It also decided to examine functioning of the Haj Committee of India and its selection process for sending pilgrims
n It also decided to examine functioning of the Haj Committee of India and its selection process for sending pilgrims