Haj subsidy keeps climbing
From Congress to NDA the fare subsidy on Haj pilgrimage has travelled from Rs. 105 million to Rs. 2,000 million in ten years. On each pilgrim in 1995 the centre was paying a subsidy of Rs. 5000, which by 2004 reached Rs. 28,680. Simultaneously the number of piglrims went up from 21035 to 69721.
Going by past statistics, the amount would be above Rs. 2,400 million for the year 2004. Each Muslim pilgrim has been paying a fixed amount of
Rs 12,000 for over 10 years now, while the individual subsidy by the government has gone up six fold.
The government tried to apply some brake, on the subsidy bill last month. But all political parties joined together to veto this.
The free market regime allows no free lunches. In keeping with this policy the state subsidy on rice, wheat, sugar, milk, petrol, kerosene and even medicine has all been abolished. But when it comes to the Haj subsidy, the government hits the roadblock. The proposal for cutting the subsidy in a phased manner came up for cabinet approval thrice in the last five years. However, the cabinet could not pass it in the face of stiff opposition and hectic lobbying.
The Congress gave subsidy on Haj pilgrimage as it considered Muslims its captive vote-bank. But the NDA has been less than lucky in winning their sympathy despite the whopping subsidy.
In the past 10 years, the number of Hajis multiplied more than three fold from 21,000 in 1994 to over 70,000 in 2004. Similarly, the per pilgrim amount given by the government to subsidize the travel has risen from Rs. 5,000 to over Rs. 29,000 now. The Hajis however, continue to pay only Rs. 12,000 in 1994 and now.
Taking cue, the demand for subsidizing the pilgrimages to Kailas Mansarover, the Gurdwaras in Pakistan and within the country, the mass pilgrimages to Sabarimala and Amarnath have been growing. The government has not conceded to any of these on the ground that a secular state cannot sponsor religious pilgrimages. A pilgrim to Kailas Mansarover, for instance, spends up to Rs. two lakh on a visit.
The cabinet proposal on phased reduction of subsidy again came up a fourth time recently. Some proposals like restricting subsidy availing to only once by a person, keeping tax-payer out of the subsidy benefit, issuing of general passport instead of temporary passport, to ensure that the applicant receives the subsidy only once and extending subsidy to only those pilgrims who live in the accommodation given by the Haj committee were considered. The Ministry of Finance and the Home Ministry had approved the revision of the fare paid by the pilgrim from Rs 12,000 to Rs 16,000. But election time is good time for sops and sobs. (R.B.)