SC orders Haj subsidy phase-out
New Delhi, May 8: The Supreme Court today directed the Centre to progressively phase out within 10 years the subsidy for Haj pilgrims, a decision welcomed by several Muslim leaders but which may be contested because of a question over the bench's power to override another bench.
The judgment suggested that the ruling was not based on opposition to the principle of state subsidy but on the assumption that the relief went against religious tenets.
Justice Aftab Alam quoted the Quran to say that it enjoined upon all Muslims to use only their own money for Haj after taking care of dependants and paying off one's own debts.
"If all the facts are made known, 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," Justice Alam said in his judgment.
"We are also not oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events, there are direct and indirect deployments of state funds and state resources. Nevertheless, we are of the view that Haj subsidy is something that is best done away with," Justice Alam said.
The Centre now subsidises each Haj pilgrim by Rs 38,800, spending Rs 685 crore a year on the pilgrimage — most of which goes to Air India.
Justice Alam had prefaced the judgment by saying "this court has no claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims of the country and it will be presumptuous for us to try to tell the Muslims what is for them a good or bad religious practice. Nevertheless, we have no doubt that a very large majority of Muslims applying to the Haj committee for going to Haj would not be aware of the economics of their pilgrimage".
The court referred to the Rs 16,000 paid by each pilgrim now for the travel that costs Rs 54,800.
"We see no justification for charging from pilgrims an amount that is much lower than even the normal air fare for a return journey to Jeddah. As regards the difference between the normal air fare and increased fare, we appreciate the intent of the Government of India to provide subsidy to cover the additional burden resulting from the stringent regulation imposed by the Saudi Arabian authorities," Justice Alam said.
Saudi Arabian rules mandate that the flight taking Indians to Jeddah must unload and return empty and vice versa.
The two-judge bench of Justices Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai took note of the fact that the subsidy had earlier been upheld as constitutionally valid by another bench of the top court. This could pose a legal complication as the earlier bench that upheld the subsidy was also a two-judge bench. Usually, an issue is referred to a larger bench of the Supreme Court if and when someone raises the matter.
Commenting on the phaseout order, law minister Salman Khurshid said the government had been working "in the same direction" over the years.
Imam-e Idain Qari Fazlur Rahman, who leads Id prayers on Red Road, said in Calcutta: "It is not barred in the religion if Haj pilgrims accept subsidy from the government. But we have seen that the main objective of the subsidy is to provide benefits to Air India that causes more discomfort than comfort to the pilgrims. The pilgrims are anyway not getting the maximum benefit of the subsidy that the government is providing."
Abdul Aziz, the general secretary of the West Bengal chapter of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, said: "If the government allows more airlines to come in the fray, the competition will make the fares competitive and the pilgrims will be able to choose from the fares that will suit them the best."
Referring to the rising Haj fares, the Supreme Court bench said that there was 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 ordered the Centre to cap its goodwill team at two members, wondering why the government was carrying on with a tradition that had long been discontinued by Pakistan and Bangladesh. The bench noted the steady rise in the number of the goodwill team members. (See chart)
Examining the lists for the past 10 years, the court said there were no criteria on the basis of which persons were selected for the delegation.
"The list shows a disparate group of persons randomly put together from various professions and walks of life. What's more surprising is that there are some who were able to go as members more than once, some even three or four times. In the absence of a reasonable basis, the nomination evidently works on patronage and granting of favours."
The bench upheld the government's 2012 Haj policy that had laid down stringent conditions for private tour operators. A big chunk of the quotas now goes to the Haj Committee of India while the rest is divided up among the private operators.
The Haj question reached the Supreme Court after the private operators contested the government order in Bombay High Court. The high court rejected the challenge but asked the Centre to give the operators 800 Haj seats that were still left over. The Centre moved the apex court that declared its intent to examine the Haj policy in its entirety.
The bench today also sought to know in greater detail the procedure followed by the Haj Committee of India and the state Haj committees in selecting the pilgrims. "We would specially like to examine the functioning of the Haj committees of the states where the number of applicants exceed the quota allotted for the state," the bench said.
The court asked the Haj committees to file replies within two months. The case is scheduled to be heard again on July 23.( )
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