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Last-minute fare hike for Haj

New Delhi, Oct. 19 (PTI): The Centre today hiked the Haj airfare by Rs 4,000 to Rs 16,000, a day before the month-long pilgrimage begins, while adding Ranchi and Mangalore to the list of embarkation points.

The last-minute fare increase, cleared at a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sparked concerns it could inconvenience the pilgrims and organisers.

Sources in the Haj Committee of India said the hike had come late and bookings had already been made at Rs 12,000, last year’s rate. The rest of the amount will now have to be recovered from the pilgrims, they said.

Under the subsidy scheme in force for Haj, even after each pilgrim pays Rs 16,000, the rest of the airfare will be borne by the Centre.

The inclusion of Ranchi and Mangalore, meant to benefit pilgrims from Jharkhand and Karnataka, will take the number of embarkation points to 19, an official spokesperson said. The civil aviation ministry will be responsible for facilitating the travel for the pilgrims sponsored by the Haj committee, the spokesperson said, adding they will be travelling by Air India, Saudi Arabian Airlines and National Air Services (NAS) of Saudi Arabia.

Around 1.15 lakh people will go on the pilgrimage this year through the Haj committee, down from 1.23 lakh last year.

The fall in numbers is being blamed on the swine flu epidemic. The Saudi government has advised that children below 12, people over 65 years old and pregnant women avoid the pilgrimage.

A team of 10 Indian doctors arrived on October 10 to co-ordinate with Saudi health agencies to tackle possible flu cases. Two isolation rooms have been created in the 30-bed hospital run by the Indian Haj Mission in Mecca to handle flu cases.

Haj committee sources said only those who had visas were being called, not those yet to receive the papers — about 10,000 to 15,000 of them.

In the first phase, the pilgrims will be flown out from October 20-November 21. In the second, they will be brought home in December-January.

Air India will operate 137 special flights to ferry the pilgrims to Jeddah and Madina. It will also run 117 hub-and-spoke flights to connect with the Haj planes of Saudi Arabian Airlines and NAS Air.

Air India, which will fly around 40,000 pilgrims, will run the Haj flights to Jeddah and Madina from Calcutta, Nagpur, Guwahati, Jaipur, Indore, Aurangabad and Srinagar. The hub-and-spoke flights, connecting to the bigger cities, will be run from Patna, Ranchi, Varanasi and Mangalore.

The Saudi Arabian flights will operate from Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. NAS Air’s flights will be available from Delhi and Kozhikode.

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