Indian Muslim women above 45 years of age will be able to go on Haj pilgrimage without their mehram (male guardian) in a group of four or more, as per the recommendations of the new Haj Policy 2018-22. Until now, women were not allowed to go for Haj without a male guardian, thus making it difficult for eligible women to travel alone for Haj. According to the recommendations submitted on Saturday by a special committee to the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA) for the new Haj Policy 2018-22, Haj subsidy will also be abolished.

The Ministry also plans to reduce the number of Embarkation Points (EPs) from 21 to nine. The EPs will be Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Kochi. According to sources close to the Ministry, reduction in the number of EPs is part of the process to re-introduce sea route for Haj travel. However, the plan for reopening the sea-route is still under analysis as the Saudi government is still to be consulted.

Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said, “Haj subsidy has been removed as part of revamping the Haj pilgrimage system. Now that there is no subsidy, it will lead to an increase in travel fares initially, which is why we have reduced the number of embarkation points. Once the sea-route reopens, the whole system will be streamlined. We have asked the departments concerned to provide us with big ships that can carry up to 5,000 people in a single journey.”

As far as the abolition of subsidy on air travel is concerned, sources within the Ministry said that the government is laying out a plan to calculate new fares for which more airlines will be able to bid other than Air India. The government also plans to introduce a transparent bidding process to break the “cartel of contractors” and bring down hiring rate with better negotiations.

Distribution of quota between the Haj Committee of India (HCoI) and Private Tour Operators (PTOs) will be rationalised in the ratio of 70:30 for the next five years. According to the new recommendations, the quota for mehram should be increased from 200 to 500 and the special quota for Jammu & Kashmir should be increased from 1,500 to 2,000. The states/ UTs receiving less than 500 applications should get priority in distribution of surplus seats. This will benefit UTs like Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman, Diu and Puducherry as well as smaller states such as Chhattisgarh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur. The committee also recommended abolishing the reserved category of applicants, viz. 70+ and fourth timers, and to allow women above 45 years of age to travel in a group of four or more for Haj without mehram (male guardian).

For the PTOs, the committee has recommended developing a robust portal for the processing of applications, as well as to formulate a comprehensive empanelment policy for the PTOs that would facilitate easier and quicker renewals. According to the recommendations, empanelment is to be done on the basis of documents as well as physical inspection of the PTOs and stringent norms will be followed for blacklisting and forfeiture of security deposit of PTOs.

The committee started its work on 15 February 2017 with Afzal Amanullah, IAS (Retd), former Secretary to the Government of India and ex-CGI, Jeddah, as convenor; and Justice S.S. Parkar, retired judge of the Bombay High Court, Qaiser Shamim, IRS (Retd) and former Chairman, Haj Committee of India, Kamal Faruqui, noted chartered accountant and Muslim scholar as members. J. Alam, joint secretary in charge of Haj, Ministry of Minority Affairs, was the member secretary of the committee.

Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood, founder, Zakat India Foundation, who had served as First Secretary for Haj from India to Jeddah between 1988-91, said: “Making Adahi coupons or Qurbani coupons compulsory for each pilgrim is a welcome move. But I do not understand why the quota for reserved category of applicants for 70+ years and fourth timers is being abolished. The renewal of the sea route does not seem to be a wise decision. It only suits the lobby in Mumbai and will encourage smuggling.” Adahi coupons are given to pilgrims for “qurbani”, which is mandatory to be performed at the end of Haj.

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