En route to Mecca

- July 26, 2018
| By : Shubham Bhatia |

The withdrawal of the Haj subsidy in January is not an issue for the 1.75 lakh pilgrims headed for Mecca this season. But for a group of 16 camping in Delhi, there are other niggling problems “We couldn’t leave on the scheduled date but now they’re setting another date,” says one of the 16 people […]

The withdrawal of the Haj subsidy in January is not an issue for the 1.75 lakh pilgrims headed for Mecca this season. But for a group of 16 camping in Delhi, there are other niggling problems

“We couldn’t leave on the scheduled date but now they’re setting another date,” says one of the 16 people who’re waiting at a lodging camp opposite Haj Manzil, the office of Delhi State Haj Committee. “The authorities don’t have any reason to give as we continue to wait in this camp.”

Due to a mistake by an acquaintance, they lost 16 passports and tickets belonging to the group in an auto in Delhi. The group that was supposed on Haj this year came from Bareilly to Delhi on July 16. While the flight was scheduled for 17th, due to the loss of passports and tickets they informed the authorities at Haj Committee and had to cancel their tickets.

“We thought we would never get our passports back and we had to cancel our tickets. We lost all hope of going on Haj this year,” says a woman from the group who requested not to be named.

Luckily, the auto driver submitted the passports at a local mosque in Khureji Khas, and they got a call from the mosque informing them that they can come and collect the passports and tickets. They did, but then got to know from the authorities that their passports have been revoked. They inquired, and after contacting the Haj Committee office in Bareilly and talking to the officials, the passports were declared valid.

Now they have to be given another date to travel to Saudi Arabia. The authorities, according to the group, are dragging their feet, meeting them but not fixing a date as to when the group could leave for Haj. The last flight arranged by the Delhi State Haj committee leaves on July 28 and it’s already been seven days since the group is sitting and waiting in the lodging camp arranged by the Delhi State Haj committee for people going to the Haj.

“We can’t do anything but wait for the authorities to act on this,” says a Haji (one who has been to Mecca as a pilgrim), who requested not to be named. This is one of the rare cases where people are facing problems by a government-managed committee.

Every year, approximately 1-1.5 million pilgrims travel to the Haj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, regarded as the holiest city for Muslims. With each passing year, the gathering of the crowd only increases.

To go for Haj, once has to either opt for the package provided by the Haj Committee, or go to a private travel operator specialising in Haj travel.

“Private packages tend to be expensive. You have to take into account the dates you’re booking and how close it is to the travel period to end,” says Tanveer Ahmed (51) a CA (chartered accountant) from Panipat, who’s relaxing in one of the halls of Haj Manzil.

Ahmed is one of the 1,75,025 people who will register his footprints next month along with his wife and daughter and perform a series of rituals around the Kaaba, the holy cube-shaped structure in the Al-Masjid al-Haram or the Great Mosque of Meccah.

He got his visa and tickets arrangement done by two persons in Delhi and did not buy a package as he thinks it comes off as expensive. He paid R1 lakh for the visa and approximately R45,000 for tickets. He says he has relatives who stay in Mecca, so he doesn’t need to worry about his lodging and food costs. Unlike Ahmed, most pilgrims need their lodging costs and other logistics to be taken care of, to make their journey a memorable one.

“Services such as better quality hotels, good food and a person accompanying the group and guiding them for doing religious rituals at the Haj become important for some people,” says Sajid (name changed) from a private tour operating agency in Delhi.
Sajid says majority of the people buy packages by the Haj Committee because of the price difference. He also states that the government package doesn’t include the kind of lodging and food services private operators provide.

Indian Muslim pilgrims pray before leaving for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Guwahati on July 14, 2018.
The Hajj, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, is the fifth pillar of Islam, a religious duty that must be carried out at least once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. / AFP PHOTO / Biju BORO

Each year, the government divides the number of people going for Haj into two quotas, one for the Haj Committee and the second for private tour operators. The quota for private tour operators for this year was 46,500. Recently the Union Minister of Minority Affairs said in a training camp for Haj Coordinators that this year a record number of 1,75,025 Indians planned to go for Haj.

The private tour operators are designated in two categories, some operators can take 98 people in one go, and some can only take 50.

In January this year, the government revoked the subsidy it used to provide the pilgrims. The subsidy was in form of discounted airfare, and one could only travel by Air India. The government decided to use the subsidy money for the education of young Muslim girls in the country. None of the pilgrims or religious groups opposed the decision.

Speaking of the subsidy which is no longer available, Mohammad Altaf, who was in Haj Manzil to pick up tickets for his uncle and mother says, “We don’t really care whether the subsidy is there or not. We believe in going to the Haj using our own income and discounts don’t go well with pilgrimages.”

According to a travel operator, the package by the Delhi State Haj Committee earlier used to cost R1.8-2 lakh; now that the subsidy is removed, it costs R2.4-2.5 lakh.

“The subsidy hasn’t affected travel in any way. People are still going. It’s just that the government quota gets filled quickly and then people come to us,” says Syed Mujeeb Ahsan Rizvi from Bright Trading & Tours in Delhi.

Rizvi says that the pricing of private tour packages had no connection with the subsidy given earlier by the government. Prices have gone up by approximately 10 per cent due to five per cent GST by the Indian government and another five per cent as VAT (Value Added Tax) imposed by the Saudi government.

The packages start from R3 lakh and go up to R10 lakh. Rizvi says people buy packages as per the quality of accommodation, flight choices and food services they want in Mecca.

As pilgrims continue to fly off in batches, a process that will continue in August, a group of 16 waits anxiously for some kind official to set a date for their departure.