125,000 pilgrims to be covered under Haj subsidy
New Delhi, July 20 (IANS) Some 125,000 Indian Muslims going for the annual Haj pilgrimage would be covered by the government subsidy this year, it was announced Friday. This means Rs.4.75 billion of the travel costs will be borne by the government.
The decision to have 125,000 pilgrims covered by the Haj subsidy scheme was taken at a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh here Thursday.
The Haj subsidy scheme has come under severe criticism over the years. The Supreme Court in May ordered that it be scrapped within 10 years.
Under the scheme, an Indian pilgrim pays nominal return airfare - this year it is Rs.20,0000 - while other charges and taxes and the balance cost of air travel arrangements are borne by the government.
On an average, the government pays Rs.38,000 per pilgrim by subsidising airfares.
The scheme was initiated in 1973 when India decided not to allow Haj pilgrims to take sea routes and to compensate the difference between fares.
The programme to subsidise Muslims in the sacred journey has been criticised even by a section of Muslim leaders.
Islam calls upon all Muslims to make a journey to Makkah, the seat of holiest of Muslim mosques Kaaba, at least once in their lives. The pilgrimage is to be offered only if affordable and indigent Muslims have been excused from it, according to the Quran.
The Supreme Court in its May 8 order asked the government to do away with the scheme.
"If all the facts are made known, a good (number) of the pilgrims would not be very comfortable in the knowledge that their Haj is funded to a substantial extent by the government," the court order said, observing that the "subsidy is something that is best done away with".
The government has said that this year Haj flights would start Sep 17 and there would be 21 embarkation points in India for pilgrims to depart.
This year there would be no direct flight from Patna due to technical difficulties. Gaya has been introduced as a new embarkation point instead.
The external affairs ministry is the nodal ministry for Haj matters but air travel arrangements are done by the civil aviation through the Haj Committee of India.
The airlines for the journey are chosen through a tendering process.
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