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First-timer term for Haj rebate

New Delhi, Sept. 11: The Centre today decided on a set of qualifications for Haj pilgrims who are sponsored by the government on the Mecca pilgrimage.

From now, all pilgrims who avail of government-discounted tickets will have to be first-time travellers to Mecca and poor enough to be out of the income-tax ambit and stay only at the accommodation arranged by the Haj committee in Mecca.

There were no such criteria for selection of pilgrims by government-sponsored Haj committees till now.

Officials said a cross-check with computerised income-tax records will show whether any applicant figures in the current roster of tax payees and checks on previous pilgrim lists will ensure no one travels twice at government expense.

The move to retarget Haj subsidy, started by Shahnawaz Hussain who held this portfolio till recently, is sure to attract controversy.

It will be seen by many in the minority community as a bid by the BJP-led Centre to appease hardline Hindus ahead of crucial Assembly polls in four northern states later this year.

BJP MPs said they would try to package the decision as one that would benefit only the poor among the minority community and not its rich and influential.

The Union cabinet also approved today a proposal to undertake measures to create 100,000 employment and self-employment opportunities in Jammu and Kashmir.

The decision follows Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s announcement in Srinagar during his last visit that a comprehensive plan would be prepared to create employment over the next two years.

Central ministries and departments would, however, be set a target of creating 150,000 jobs divided into three categories of self-employment, wage employment and regular salaried employment.

After Vajpayee’s announcement, a task force was set up under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary to assess the scope of employment generation in various economic sectors and regions.

The task force, in turn, named nine core groups, which were asked to study in detail the prospective growth and associated employment generation. Based on the core groups’ recommendations, 150,000 employment opportunities were identified for creation in various sectors over the next two years.

The recommendations of the task force will be implemented by Union ministries and departments and the state government.

Alongside detailed monitoring by each ministry concerned, the progress of the implementation will be reviewed every month at the level of home secretary and quarterly at the cabinet secretary level. The half-yearly reviews will be submitted to the Prime Minister.

The creation of these jobs will cost an estimated Rs 2,988 crore, of which Rs 2,698 crore will be budgetary support from the government.

The state government will identify district-wise the number of prospective beneficiaries under the various schemes. It has also been advised to set up a counterpart support group for operationalisation of the employment programme and its monitoring.

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