Civil Aviation Ministry’s affidavit in Supreme Court lists problems and priorities

A Civil Aviation Ministry affidavit filed in the Supreme Court reveals a government torn between the burden of burgeoning travel subsidy for Haj pilgrims and concern for their welfare.

The affidavit was filed after a Bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Desai asked the Ministry, in a September 21, 2012 order, “to indicate measures that would be taken to provide cheaper air travel, either through the national carrier or private airlines to reduce the cost of travel of Haj pilgrims.”

The Ministry provides air travel arrangements under the quota allocated to the Haj Committee of India (HCoI) and State Haj committees set up under the Haj Committee Act 2002.

The affidavit shows that the government is in two minds: On the one hand, it says it wants to lower air fare by reducing the number of embarkation points from 21 to just the big airports and, on the other, says this move will prove “detrimental to the interests of the pilgrims,” who will have to bear the cost of travel to the nearest bigger airports. In Kerala, Kozhikode is the sole embarkation point.

Again, the government says it wants to withdraw special concessions like extra baggage, extra meals and special handling charges but mulls over how these facilities are intended as a “welfare initiative to ensure a comfortable journey.”

Thirdly, the government suggests stopping special charter flights but adds immediately that it cannot come to terms with the idea of leaving pilgrims at the mercy of “market forces, exposed to the detriments of unregulated fares.”

“These high costs are incurred purely on the basis of benefit for the Hajis who should revel in the glory of their pilgrimage with minimum burden on their shoulders as well as with as many benefits as the government can provide,” reasons the affidavit filed on November 7 by counsel Haris Beeran.

The increase in charter flight costs driven by high ATF cost, escalation in foreign exchange fluctuation, ground handling/parking/navigation charges and inflation over the years have not helped matters.

The affidavit, which will be taken up for hearing after the Diwali break, points out that the pilgrim’s share of subsidised air travel remained unchanged at Rs. 12,000 from 1994 to 2010, though there was a “rapid rise” in the number of pilgrims from 21,035 in 1994 to 1.25 lakh in 2011.

The pilgrim’s share was increased to Rs. 16,000 only during Haj-2011. For Haj-2012, it was hiked to Rs. 20,000.

“In order to reduce subsidy, the government has decided to gradually increase the share of fare paid by pilgrims,” says the Ministry.

The affidavit gives four major reasons why the HCoI quota travel is costlier than scheduled flights plying the route.

First, Haj traffic is seasonal, available only near the Haj dates. “The normal capacity deployed by the designated airlines of the two countries [India and Saudi Arabia] is not sufficient to cater for the increased need during the Haj. Short-term leasing cost of airlines is high.”

Secondly, traffic during the Haj is “unidirectional.” Pilgrims travel from India to Saudi Arabia, while the return flight is always empty. It is vice versa after the pilgrimage.

Thirdly, some of the 21 embarkation points are in remote areas. The cost of operations from remote airports is much higher.

Finally, though charter flights offer 55/65 kg baggage, extra meals and exclusive handling, the facilities come at a heavy price.

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