Remove Haj subsidy in 10 years, SC tells government (Third Lead)

New Delhi, May 8: The Supreme Court Tuesday favoured doing away with the Haj subsidy and directed the government to eliminate the financial sops extended to pilgrims in the next 10 years.

Justice Aftab Alam and Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai said: “…we are of the view that Haj subsidy is something that is best done away with.”

Justice Alam said: “We also take note of the fact that the grant of subsidy has been found to be constitutionally valid by this court.”

“We are also not oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events there are direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resources. Nevertheless, we are of the view that Haj subsidy is something that is best done away with.”

The judges also cut the strength of the goodwill delegation, sent by the government along with the pilgrims every year, from 30 to two.

The court took note that in 2011 each Haj pilgrim was charged Rs.16,000 towards air fare and the government paid to the airlines an additional amount of Rs.38,000 per Haji – the amount termed as “subsidy”. In 2011, 125,000 Indians undertook the pilgrim.

India provides subsidy to over one lakh pilgrims who go to Makkah and Madina annually and spends over Rs.600 crore ($120 million) every year on the pilgrimage.

“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 court said.

A Haj pilgrim would not be at ease if he were to know that a substantial part of his pilgrimage was being funded by the government, the court 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 court said.

The court said that “the subsidy money may be more profitably used for upliftment of the community in education and other indices of social development”.

“We would like to point out that as the subsidy is progressively reduced and is finally eliminated, it is likely that more and more pilgrims would like to go for Haj through private tour operators,” the court said.

The judges also objected to the sending of a goodwill delegation, along with the pilgrims every year, to Saudi Arabia on the occasion of Haj.

“We completely fail to see how even that purpose can be served by sending such a large, unwieldy, amorphous and randomly selected delegation,” the court said.

“On a careful consideration of the issue we are quite clear that the present practice of sending goodwill Haj delegation must come to a stop,” the court said.

If the government wished to send a message of goodwill to Saudi Arabia 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 Indian pilgrims who are there at their own expense.

Rejecting the government’s justification that the goodwill delegation was meant to oversee and facilitate the arrangements made for pilgrims, the court said that the arrangements were overseen by the consulate general of India, Jeddah, and the Embassy of India, Riyadh, along with professionals.

The apex court said this in an interim order on the central government’s petition challenging the Oct 5, 2011 Bombay High Court judgment by which it directed the government to give its remaining quota of 800 Haj pilgrims to private operators so that this did not go unutilised.

The high court judgment came after some private tour operators moved it challenging the external affairs ministry’s policy which said that only those operators would be eligible for the allocation of Haj pilgrims’ quota who had an office space measuring at least 250 sq. feet.

The modified policy asked the private tour operators to give bank guarantee of Rs.100,000 for every 100 Hajis they were carrying for the pilgrimage.