The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Centre plan to limit Haj help

New Delhi, Aug. 22: The BJP government has mooted a proposal to sponsor only those Haj pilgrims who are poor enough not to be income-tax payers, are at least 50 years old and have never gone on the pilgrimage before.

“We have mooted this eligibility criteria, which we think is quite fair. It’s our duty to help those who can’t pay for their Haj, who are old... but this will be brought in only when and if we are able to build a political consensus,” said civil aviation minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain.

The move, civil aviation ministry officials said, is aimed at re-targeting subsidies so that the poor get the benefit of state help.

If Hussain can push this proposal through, it will mark a big change in the selection process for the government-subsidised Haj. Until now, there was no real selection criteria for the Hajis, except a general convention of preferring old people to the young.

But Shahnawaz and the Centre are naturally chary about ramming through the new system, given the suspicion with which many in the minority community view them.

“Let me be very clear: there is no move to cut down on our expenditure on Haj; in fact, it is the BJP government which has taken the most numbers on Haj pilgrimage in any given year and spent the most on their travel,” Hussain said.

“We spent Rs 164 crore on Haj last time or Rs 23,000 for each of the 72,000 Hajis we carried. Compare that with Rs 10.5 crore or Rs 5,000 each on 21,000 Hajis sent by the Congress in 1994.” Over and above the Rs 23,000 that the government spends on each pilgrim, the Hajis end up paying Rs 15,000 out of their own pocket.

The ministry said it would like the system to be “as transparent as possible”. Paperwork will be kept to the minimum.

A simple cross-check with computerised income-tax records will show up whether any Haj applicant figures in the current roster of taxpayers, while date of birth certificates will establish proof of age.

Every year, the Haj selection process turns into a nasty row between rival lobbies, often with political overtones and with charges of corruption surfacing against one or the other member of the Haj selection board.

Already, a brouhaha has arisen over dropping an eminent scientist from the central selection board and replacing him with a former board chairman, who had attracted court cases over decisions taken during his tenure. The Haj board is decided by the foreign minister.

Hussain’s desire to re-target subsidy stems from the 10th report of the Expenditure Reforms Commission, which had sought re-targeting and freezing of Haj subsidies.

While a freeze may not be politically feasible, a bid to retarget subsidies could help in any game of political oneupmanship.

The BJP could go back and tell the poorer Muslims of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that it was the Hindutva party that ensured that only the poor and the old are benefited by the much-maligned Haj selection system.

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