The Centre has informed the Supreme Court that it has decided to restrict Haj pilgrimage at government subsidy to Muslims only as a “once in a lifetime” affair as against the existing policy of “once in five years”.

In an affidavit filed before the apex court, the government said the new guidelines have been framed to ensure that priority is given to those applicants who have never performed Haj.

“This is a major change introduced for the first time.

Restricting the number of pilgrimages to a Haj applicant through HCOI (Haj Committee of India) to ‘once in a lifetime’ as against the existing ‘once in five years’ will ensure that the Haji will benefit from government subsidy only once in his/her lifetime. It will also ensure that priority is given to those applicants who have never performed Haj,” the Centre said.

The government, however, refrained from disclosing the amount of subsidy being incurred by it for 2012 saying, “The exact figure in respect of the travel subsidy to the pilgrims going through Haj Committee of India for 2012 will be known after the Hajis completed their Haj journey and return to India.”

According to the government, priority will be given to those who are in the 70 plus category and those who had unsuccessfully applied thrice earlier for the subsidy.

The Centre’s affidavit comes in the backdrop of certain searching questions raised by the apex court on February 24.

A bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai had directed the Centre to provide details of subsidy given by it and criteria adopted for allocation of seats to state committees.

The apex court frowned at the practice of sending official delegations to accompany the pilgrims and had asked the Centre to furnish entire details regarding Haj subsidy, as also to the criteria adopted.

The apex court was hearing an appeal filed by the Centre challenging a Bombay High Court judgement which had directed the Ministry of External Affairs to allow certain private operators to operate the services of 800 of the 11,000 pilgrims earmarked under the VIP quota subsidised by the government.

Earlier, the bench had pulled up the Centre’s practice of “politicising” the annual Haj pilgrimage by permitting official delegations to accompany the pilgrims, for which the government offers huge subsidy, saying, “It’s a bad religious practice.”