Saudi Arabia wants India to reduce Haj quota(Lead)

June 12th, 2008 - 11:50 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 11 (IANS) India has managed to increase its Haj quota by 4,000 despite a request by Saudi Arabian authorities to reduce the number of pilgrims because of an accommodation crunch around the main mosque. “Haj agencies in Saudi Arabia have requested the Haj Committee of India to reduce the number of pilgrims as they are facing a shortage of shelters around the Haram Shareif (the main mosque) due to development works taking place,” said a source in the ministry of external affairs (MEA).

India had requested the Saudi Arabian government to increase its quota by 15,000 more. “However, we have been given just 4,000 more,” the source said.

Last year, India sent 157,000 pilgrims - of which 110,000 went through the Haj Committee and 47,000 through private travel agents.

“We tried to convince them that we get more than 200,000 applications every year. We struggle to keep the numbers within the limits,” the source added.

The annual Haj pilgrimage is also likely to cost much more with accommodation charges at the holy site in Saudi Arabia being increased by about Rs.4,000 and air fares rising too.

According to sources, Haj pilgrims who travel through government agencies and enjoy subsidies may have to shell out substantially more to stay in Makkah Mukarramah, close to the main mosque.

“There could be an increase of at least Rs.4,000 in the accommodation charges,” an official estimated.

Tariff in the shelters in the green area, around the main mosque, has been increased from 2,700 to 3,000 Saudi Riyal (SR). The fee has also been increased in the next belt, known as the white area, from SR.1,600 to SR.2,000. Similarly, accommodation in the outer periphery will now cost SR.1,500 from SR.1,050.

Combined with this hike in tariff is the increase in air fares. Ministry sources admitted that the Haj Committee may be forced to raise charges for pilgrims.

“There are certain things which are not within our control,” an official said.

Pilgrims seem to have little choice but to pay more as officials say the government was in no position to increase the current subsidy of Rs.4 billion.

A pilgrim travelling through Haj Committee spends only Rs.12,000 for his trip whereas the air fare alone is Rs.40,000.

An expert committee, consisting of representatives from the ministries of finance and civil aviation, had recommended that the Haj Committee charge at least Rs.20,000 from each pilgrim. This was rejected by the MEA last year. The committee has now proposed that Rs.25,000 be charged.

The Saudi Airlines which with India’s national carrier Air India carries the pilgrims to Jeddah, the nearest airport to the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah, also has sought a 35 percent increase in its air charges this year, the sources said.

India has sought 60,000 dwelling units within the one km green area for accommodating its Haj pilgrims. However, it has got only half that number.

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