The airfares for the Haj pilgrims this year have been slashed and a Saudi airline has been roped in to carry passengers, besides Air India, at the instance of the government -- a move that would offset the impact of withdrawl of Haj subsidy, Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi announced on Tuesday.
The airfare from New Delhi to Jeddah and back, which was Rs 98,750 in 2013-14 as fixed by the UPA government, has now been reduced to Rs 71,853. Similarly, the airfare from Hyderabad would be Rs 65,766 instead of Rs 1,01,600 previously, Naqvi told the media.
The most drastic cut in the airfare has been made for Srinagar which will now cost Rs 1,01,400 instead of Rs 1,98,350.
The government has also roped in a private airline -- the Saudi Arabia-based "flynas" -- for ferrying Haj pilgrims this year. It would operate from six embarkation points. The rest 14 embarkation points would be handled by the Air India and Saudi Airlines in equal numbers.
"The Saudi Airlines had said that they would charge as much fare as the Air India does. Nothing less, nothing more. Since we persuaded Air India to slash its fares, the Saudi Airlines readily agreed to reduce its fares equally," Naqvi said.
The decision by the two airlines would offset the impact of withdrawal of Haj subsidy and make the pilgrimage more economical, he said.
The decision to cut the airfares came after hectic parleys between the Minority Affairs Ministry, Civil Aviation Ministry and the Air India that currently has the monopoly over flying Haj pilgrims to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and back.
The announcement would end the uncertainty and anxiety over the final cost of the Haj 2018 that was looming ever since the government had announced complete withdrawal of Haj subsidy from this year.
The reduced airfares plus the government's decision to allow pilgrims for the first time to choose embarkation points from where travel cost is less than a pilgrim's hometown/ state capital, would ensure that the cost of Haj 2018 per pilgrim is slightly less than that of last year, or at least would not be much costlier despite the withdrawal of subsidy.
Calling the decision "historic", Naqvi said that the move was in consonance with the Narendra Modi government's motto of "Development with Dignity".
"The earlier governments led by Congress doled out subsidy as a favour and as alms. Even the Muslims did not like it as one is not supposed to perform Haj by taking alms or monetary favours. We have ensured that Muslims perform Haj with dignity, with their own money and that too more economically," Naqvi said.
"So this has ended the hoax of subsidy," he added.
However, the final cost of the pilgrimage is not likely to come down drastically as the accommodation in Saudi Arabia has got expensive over the last years.
In 2017, the Haj Committee of India (HCI) charged Rs 200,000 for Haj with ordinary accommodation (Azizia) and Rs 234,000 for deluxe accommodation (Green), which is closer to the Haram in Mecca.
"Over the last year, the electricity tariff in Saudi Arabia has shot up three times. Also, the petrol prices have doubled. The accommodation cost is also going up. These factors may result in a hike in the total Haj cost this year," HCI Chairman Mehboob Ali Kaiser had told IANS in January.
"It will be unfair to expect the same costs for everything in Saudi Arabia after a threefold rise in electricity prices and doubling of petrol prices. Secondly, the Saudis are cussed bargainers and we have to really haggle hard with them for every riyal," he had added.