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Pressure on Delhi to retain Haj subsidy

Calcutta, Nov. 13: The Left Front government has reacted strongly to the BJP-led Centre’s decision to withdraw the Haj subsidy for tax-paying would-be pilgrims midway through the process of identifying them.

The minority development affairs department and the West Bengal Minorities’ Commission are moving independently to have the decision withdrawn.

Till last year, the ministry of external affairs subsidised the pilgrims’ two-way air fare, just like other government wings pay for the arrangement of Hindu pilgrimages like Ganga Sagar and Hardwar. The same set of rules was in place when the government issued a notification asking for applications from pilgrims who wanted to make the trip in January-February next year.

More than 2,200 people applied from the state, paying an initial fee of Rs 10,000. The figure, said officials, was 500 more than the last occasion.

Midway through the process, two new conditions were imposed on the would-be pilgrims; one, those who pay taxes would not be eligible for the subsidy; two, those who had availed of it earlier would not get the facility.

The second condition, Haj committee officials said, was justified. But the first would mean that several hundred Muslims, without great means but law-abiding enough to file income-tax returns regularly, would not be able to go, they added.

“According to the law, no new condition can be imposed midway through the process,” said minorities commission chairman K.M. Yusuf, a retired Calcutta High Court judge. “What the government has done is not legally tenable,” he added.

The arrangement in place before the new conditions were imposed had pilgrims paying Rs 12,000 for the two-way air fare of Rs 36,000. “But this does not mean the government provided Rs 24,000 for each pilgrim,” an official said. “The actual amount spent is far less as the government charters planes and this ensures hefty discounts.”

Without the subsidy, the pilgrims will have to fork out an amount upwards of Rs 1 lakh, said an official.

The state minorities commission has requested the National Commission for Minorities to petition Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee for a rollback of the “illegal” decision. “A fresh look, if warranted, can be taken in future but this year, there is actually no legal scope for a change in the conditions,” said Yusuf.

The government voiced support. Minority development affairs minister Mohammad Salim said: “The state Haj committee decided yesterday that it would press for a rollback. We are also in touch with other states for a joint movement.”

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