Did national carrier Air India and a Saudi airline fatten themselves on the Haj subsidy granted by the Centre for Muslims to fly budget to Jeddah?
Every year in August, close to a lakh and a half Indian pilgrims go for Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam. For the pilgrimage, they either travel on their own or sign up with the Haj Committee of India (HCOI), which acts as a travel agent on behalf of the government and arranges travel and stay for a fee.
Last year, of theÂ 99,902Â hajjisÂ who travelled to Jeddah piggybacking on the HCOI,Â a pilgrim paid Rs 2,19,900, which included a âsubsidized return airfareâÂ of Rs 45,000. The air fare is a rip-off because when booked months in advance, the Delhi-Jeddah return ticket is available for around Rs 30,000 during the peak season.Â On Monday, Etihad offered a seat on its Jeddah flight from the farthest corner of India at Rs 39,846 for August 24 which is during peak-season.
So, do the figures show that pilgrims are paying the market fare or a little more, and the subsidy is a merely a financial sleight of hand to keep the ailing Air India afloat? It seemingly works more or less like the garment sellers who offer big discounts on marked-up rates.
In its 2016-17 budget, the Central Government allocated Rs 450 crore for Haj subsidy, which was at least Rs 2 crore more than what ISRO spent for itsÂ Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). The moneyÂ is entirely used to subsidise the air fare payable by the Haj pilgrims, and that subsidy amount is being whittled down every year in tune with the Supreme Court order, which in 2012 asked to phase out Haj subsidyÂ in 10 years.
Of the Rs 2,19,900 a pilgrim pays to the Haj committee of India,Â the money is broken up among air fare, stay at Makkah and Madina (Rs 81,561 and Rs 9,062), other expenses (Rs 76,849) and miscellaneous dues (Rs 1000).
The Ministry of Civil Aviation invites tenders from airlines of India and Saudi Arabia for undertaking Haj charter flights from 21 stations in India to Jeddah/Madina and back to respective stations during the Haj season between August and October.
Last year,Â Air India transported pilgrims from 11 points while Saudi Arabian Airlines and Flynas operated from four points each.Â SpiceJet also played a bit-part role in flying the pilgrims from two stations.
The subsidized airfare arrived on the basis of tender offers seems marked up and not in tune with the fares prevalent in theÂ monthÂ the tenders were issued. Air India claims that the actual cost ranged from Rs 63,750 to Rs 1,63,350 depending on the embarkation points.Â That fare though is for those who wake up late and rush to book a flight and not for pilgrims who plan their travel years in advance.
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) president and Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi said Muslims do not need government subsidy for going to Haj.
He said that subsidy amount of Rs 450 crore was actually being utilised by the airlines, either Air India or some other international carriers.
"If a global tender is called, on lesser prices more people will go for Haj," he told a newschannel.
He also suggested if there was any bilateral agreement in this regard the government should re-negotiate it. The AIMIM president demanded that the subsidy amount of Rs 450 crore should be spent on girls' education instead.
"This significant amount of Rs 450 crore, of haj subsidy, should be utilised for girl education. Create more girls schools, hostels... Rs 450 cr is a huge amount," he said.
Owaisi said he had been raising this issue for the past 11 years in Parliament.
"As a Muslim, I do not get any government subsidy to go on Haj. A Haj is obligatory on Muslims who have their own financial wherewithal. We do not need any government subsidy. Please give this money to the scholarships of girl students. This will make India and the Muslim community stronger," he added.
He said the subsidy was started during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's regime when people used to go on ships but "now we do not require it at all." Â