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 the several Muslim representatives, but which may be contested because of a question on the bench’s power to override.
The judgment suggested that the ruling was not based on opposition to state subsidy but on the belief that it 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 the 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 deployment 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 around Rs 38,800, spending Rs 685 crore a year on the pilgrimage.
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.
MPs from the minority community welcomed the court order. “This Rs 600 crore should be invested in education of minority girls because their education standards are very very low,” Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi told reporters outside Parliament.
Law minister Salman Khurshid said the government had been working “in the same direction” over the years. “The issue of Haj subsidy has been already under consideration and discussions had taken place for the rollback of Haj subsidy,” he said.
Citing figures for the last 19 years, the bench noted that the subsidy has been increasing every year. This is on account of increase both in the number of pilgrims and the travel cost/air fare. In 1994, the number of pilgrims going for the Haj was as low as 21,035; in 2011, it increased to 1,25,000. In 1994, the cost of travel per pilgrim was only Rs 17,000; in 2011, it went up to Rs 54,800.
But every member of the Haj team from India only had to pay Rs 16,000 as airfare. Since the team was 1,25,000-strong, the amount spent as subsidy was over Rs 600 crore. The total Haj subsidy that was Rs 10.51 crore in 1994 swelled up to Rs 685 crore in 2011, the bench said, directing that the subsidy be progressively reduced and done away within 10 years from today.
“The subsidy money may be more profitably used for uplift of the community in education and other indices of social development,” Justice Alam said.
The bench also 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.
In 1967, the bench noted, the team consisted of three members. Till 1973, there was no material increase in its size and till 1987, the number of members remained under 10.
Thereafter, the delegation started steadily increasing in size and in 1997 the delegation was of 31 members. In 2005, there were 36 members in the delegation and in 2010 it was 30. In 2011, the number was marginally reduced to 27.
The bench, while passing these orders, also upheld the government’s 2012 Haj policy that had laid down stringent conditions for Private Tour Operators (PTOs) to get Haj quotas.