The Ministry of Civil Aviation’s tender notice, published on December 24, retains the number of boarding points for pilgrims at 21 cities across the country for the Haj pilgrimage between July and September 2019. The committee to review the previous Haj Policy (2013-17) had suggested reducing the boarding points from 21 to nine.
But India’s new Haj policy 2018-22, released last year, stated that 21 embarkation or boarding points for flights to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage would be retained only for 2018, without specifying on the issue for 2019 and subsequent years.
The new Haj policy released in November 2017 states, “All 21 embarkation points will be retained for Haj 2018. The pilgrims will be given a choice between the embarkation point of the area and the nearest economical embarkation point as per the difference in air travel cost in the previous year. This arrangement can be suitably modified by the High Commission of India, if the need arises.”
The Haj Committee had recommended boarding of pilgrims from only nine airports – Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Cochin. But in 2019, pilgrims will board from all 21 cities which in addition to the above include Srinagar, Ranchi, Varanasi, Nagpur, Mangalore, Jaipur, Guwahati, Goa, Calicut, Gaya, Aurangabad and Bhopal.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation expects almost 125,000 pilgrims to be boarding flights from these cities to Jeddah and Medina for the annual Haj pilgrimage to be held between July 4 and September 14, 2019. Almost half these pilgrims are expected to board from four airports – Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow and Kolkata. Among the smaller airports, Srinagar in Kashmir and Calicut in Kerala, are expected to see almost 9,500 pilgrims each leaving for Haj.
The tender for all these routes are open to airlines from India and Saudi Arabia. As in the past, Saudi Arabian airlines have been barred from bidding for Srinagar. Only designated Indian airlines will be selected to operate from Jammu and Kashmir’s capital. Over 175,000 Muslims from India went for the Haj in 2018, which according to the government, was the highest recorded since independence. Of these 128,000 went through the Haj Committee of India and the remaining through private tour operators.
The Modi government had removed airfare subsidy for Haj from 2018. Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi had stated last year that airfares for pilgrims were much cheaper than they were under the subsidy regime. In 2018, airlines that ferried Haj pilgrims were paid Rs 570 million less as compared to 2017, despite the fact that almost 4,000 more pilgrims were transported to and from Saudi Arabia. While Air India operates a bulk of the Haj flights, private airlines like SpiceJet too have been involved in Haj operations in the past.