Muhammad Akram, a Lahore-based real estate advisor, wanted to go to Saudi Arabia to perform Haj this year. As his budget was limited, he wanted to avail the government-managed scheme, which is economical compared to packages offered by private operators.
This package offered by the government costs Rs272,000 if travelling from the north and Rs262,000 from the south of the country. The package covers airfare, accommodation, inland transportation, sacrifice of animals etc.
Comparatively, the private Haj operators charge between Rs500,000 and Rs600,000 per person, if not more.
Much to Akram’s disappointment, his application got rejected — because it reached the concerned authorities after the quota limit had been exhausted.
What Akram found most astonishing was that the quota reached limit within an hour or so of the opening of banks on April 21 — the distribution day of the Haj application forms.
Around 6,500 branches of six banks were designated to receive these application forms all over the country. In total, 127,586 applications were received and only 53,814 were approved – within an hour of the opening of banks on April 21.
Akram alleges the banks colluded with the government officials and private Haj organisers that allowed applicants to fill forms in advance. Obviously, “the favour was extended in exchange for money,” he speculates.
The ministry is investigating the alleged role of banks in manipulating the Haj applications.
Here one is reminded of the arrest of a federal minister for religious affairs for his alleged involvement in booking accommodation for Pakistani pilgrims in Saudi Arabia at inflated rates. The allegations were established and the ministry of religious affairs had to refund Rs2.5 billion charged as extra accommodation, transport and sacrificial costs to the pilgrims.
Azhar Siddiq, a Lahore-based lawyer, says “Under the existing policy, the Haj quota should be distributed equally between the government and the private sector”, and goes on to ask, “Why has the government announced an additional quota of 15,000 applicants to the private sector from its own share?” Azhar says the court has issued a stay order against the grant of this additional quota to private organisers — “I hope the court asks the government to adjust 15,000 more applicants under the Haj scheme”.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj issues Haj quota to different countries at the ratio of 1,000 pilgrims per one million Muslim inhabitants. Under this formula, Pakistan’s quota should be around 180,000 if its population is assumed to be close to 180 million. However, it stands at 143,368 due to the 20 per cent cut applied last year by the Saudi government due to the ongoing construction work in Makkah and Madina.
A member of the Haj Group Organisers’ Association Pakistan, a body formed by private operators, refutes charges of any conspiracy in the allocation of additional quota. In fact, he says, this year the government simply wants to compensate the private operators for the reduction in quota granted to them last year.
On condition of anonymity, he says, the difference in rates offered by the government and private Haj organisers is mainly due to the distance between the lodging facilities and the Haram. The government provides accommodation at least two kilometres away from the Haram, whereas the private Haj organisers offer space a few steps away from the Haram.
Besides, he says, the private Haj organisers spend huge sums of money on travelling to Saudi Arabia and back to make arrangements.
Azhar Siddiq disagrees. “Why cannot the government revise the quota distribution formula and increase its own share to facilitate maximum number of poor pilgrims?” he asks.
Azhar has provided documents to the court where new Haj organisers have offered to accommodate pilgrims for an amount even less than that charged by the government.
Shehzad Ahmed, Joint Secretary Haj, Ministry of Religious Affairs, says they have taken cognizance of the problems faced in processing of applications and plan to eliminate the role of banks from next year.
He adds they are working hard to facilitate pilgrims and to avoid the errors committed in the past. Explaining his point further, he says they have set up an IT-based platform where complaints filed by pilgrims will be uploaded in real-time using an android-based system. This will keep record of the complaints and the time lapse between the filing and redressal of an issue.
The joint secretary agrees the lodging facilities provided by the government are far away but “this does not mean the quality is not maintained”.
He says the main role of the ministry is to ensure that the pilgrims are facilitated to the maximum and all the commitments made by the government or the private organisers are kept, he concludes.