Haj subsidy is set to be scrapped from 2018 with the Centre deciding to go ahead with the recommendation for its immediate abolition by a special committee set up in January this year.
The decision has come in the face of strong opposition from the Haj Committee of India that wants the subsidy phased out gradually by 2022, as directed by the Supreme Court in 2012.
A review meeting on a new Haj policy was held on Thursday between senior officials of the ministries of minority affairs, external affairs and civil aviation, Air India and the Haj Committee of India. Officials privy to the meeting confirmed to Express that the subsidy would be scrapped next year.
Before 2012, the amount of funds set aside for Haj subsidy was cited to the Supreme Court as averaging around Rs 650 crore per year. Since then, subsidies have gradually declined. Last year, the amount was pegged at Rs 450 crore.
A source, who did not wish to be named, said the government had agreed to certain suggestions by the stakeholders but made it clear that the subsidy would have to go in 2018 itself. Minority Affairs Ministry officials said Haj subsidy funds would from now on be used for educational empowerment and the welfare of minorities in the country.
Hindus have traditionally attacked the subsidy on grounds that it is contrary to the principle of secularism and serves to appease the community. They have also sought to turn it into justification to demand subsidy for Hindu pilgrimages.
Sources said scrapping of the subsidy would mainly hit pilgrims from small cities and states that do not have many people going for Haj, such as Assam and Jharkhand.
“Air fares will shoot up for pilgrims travelling from small cities which do not have regular flights to Saudi Arabia. But for pilgrims travelling from major cities won’t be affected much. That is why the special committee had recommended scrapping of embarkation points in small cities,” said a Minority Affairs Ministry official, who did not wish to be named.
1,70,000 Indians performed haj this year
Pilgrims are flown to Saudi Arabia on Air India flights and subsidies mainly given in the form of discounted air fares
The cheapest plan, Azizya, costs around Rs 2.10 lakh. Green costs around Rs 2.20 lakh. The one through private tour operators costs between Rs 4-10 lakh