By Hassan Cheruppa
JEDDAH – The High Power Committee to Review India’s Haj Policy held extensive talks with the concerned Saudi authorities in a bid to reduce the cost for Haj for pilgrims from the country with the phasing out of the travel subsidy by the year 2022.
Afzal Amanullah, convener of the committee, told a press conference at the Indian Consulate’s conference hall on Tuesday that the committee would submit its report to the government of India within a month.
The government will frame the Haj policy for a five-year period starting with the Haj of 2018 on the basis of the committee’s recommendations.
The government of India has formed the six-member committee to study ways to improve India’s Haj policy and also look into the issue of travel subsidy to the pilgrims in light of the 2012 Supreme Court order on gradually reducing and abolishing it by 2022.
Amanullah, retired secretary of the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and a former consul general in Jeddah, said the committee held extensive talks with almost all the stakeholders in India and Saudi Arabia. The talks covered everything under the sun with regard to improving facilities and services for the Indian pilgrims.
“Our thrust is to enable the pilgrims who come through the Haj Committee of India (HCI) to perform their obligatory ritual at affordable and reasonable prices for their accommodation and travel,” he said.
Amanullah said the committee held elaborate discussions with all the relevant Saudi stakeholders and the outcome of the meetings was excellent. “We have discussed minute details of every component of Haj management and operation with all those associated with Haj, as well as officials who deal with the Indian pilgrims. These included the General Authority of Civil Aviation, Saudi Arabian Airlines, South Asian Tawafa Organization, United Agents Office, General Car Syndicate, National Establishment for Haj Guides, and Housing Groups in Madinah,” he said.
Amanullah said the committee focused on the cost cutting and cost minimizing experiment for some 125,000 pilgrims who come under the Haj Committee of India. “We are still looking into making affordable accommodation and airline costs, and we discussed about improving services for pilgrims at reasonable rates,” he added.
Amanullah also noted that the new policy would also regulate private tour operators (PTOs). “We will regulate PTOs with strict procedures for licensing and other measures but are not going to fix any ceilings on charges as this will depend on demand and supply equations in the market,” Amanullah said.
Replying to complaints about PTOs exploiting pilgrims, he said the competent authorities would take strict action if pilgrims lodged their complaints in writing, but very few pilgrims had lodged complaints in the past. “We are trying to cover all the loopholes and find solutions for shortcomings,” he said.
Amanullah said the authorities were looking into various components of the methodology followed by the concerned airlines in calculating their fare so as to make it reasonable. “The plan is to bring down the cost for Haj in a phased manner keeping pace with the phasing out of the subsidy,” he said, noting that the Supreme Court order in this regard is final.
“After reaching India, we will have discussions with the Civil Aviation authorities and Air India and then present our recommendations to the government to facilitate finalizing of the new Haj policy,” Amanullah said.
He said there was no scope for floating global tender for the air travel of pilgrims as the bilateral Haj agreement between the Kingdom and India does not permit it. “We discussed this matter with the Saudi authorities and will continue our efforts in this regard,” he said while pointing out that the authorities are also examining a proposal to revive ship service for pilgrims.
Qaiser Shamim, former chairman of HCI and member of the Long Term Haj Accommodation Committee, explained the difficulties in finding long-term accommodation for Indian pilgrims. He said long-term accommodation was an ideal solution to keep prices down but the Saudi law is against it.
“While serving as chairman of the HCI, I happened to visit Saudi Arabia as a member of the committee, a number of times to find out such buildings. The committee had discussions with Saudi officials and some landlords but failed to have a major headway because of too many hurdles,” Shamim said.
“As per the committee’s suggestion, the consul general advertised for a consultant but could not find a right one, and hence we are looking for collaboration between Indian and Saudi businessmen to construct such buildings to cater to the requirements of Indian pilgrims so that we can hire them on long term bases,” Shamim added.
The press conference was also attended by committee members S.S. Parkar, retired judge of Bombay High Court, and J. Alam,
joint secretary at the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ahmad Javed, Consul General Mohammed Noor Rahman Sheikh and Deputy Consul General and Haj Consul Mohammed Shahid Alam.