It lays stress on pilgrims, not private tour operators

The draft Private Tour Operators (PTO) Policy for Haj 2013, submitted by the Union Ministry of External Affairs for the Supreme Court’s approval, makes it clear that the pilgrimage is meant to benefit the worshipper and not the tour operator.

The draft policy was submitted by the Ministry before a Supreme Court Bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana P. Desai on Monday.

“It is submitted that the government has prepared a draft PTO policy for Haj - 2013 taking into consideration the views of the Supreme Court, the interest of the Indian pilgrims, past experience of PTOs, number of pilgrims handled by the PTOs in the previous years, the track records of the PTOs and quotas allocated to them,” the five-page affidavit submitted by the Ministry through Attorney General of India G.E. Vahanvati stated.

The affidavit, signed by A.R. Ganashyam, Joint Secretary with the Ministry, said that once the Supreme Court approves the PTO policy for Haj 2013, applications could be invited from eligible PTOs and the entire exercise of selection of PTOs could be completed in a period of about two months by early April 2013.

Haj in October

This, it said, would give a lead time of about six months to ensure that there will be no ambiguity among either the pilgrims or the PTOs in the run-up to Haj in October 2013.

The draft policy will also be subject to the Bilateral Haj Agreement to be entered into between the Governments of India and Saudi Arabia for Haj 2013.

“Taking on record the policy, the Supreme Court Bench has stressed that the PTO policy should benefit the pilgrim and not the private tour operator. It said that the number of private tour operators should be streamlined, that airfares should be reduced and the ministry should provide long-term accommodation in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrims,” advocate Haris Beeran, Supreme Court counsel for the Ministry, said.

A reading of the draft policy shows that PTOs must shoulder full responsibility of their wards, from furnishing full details of the pilgrims under their charge before they leave for Saudi Arabia to ensuring that none of the worshippers are “left stranded” in the desert.

“The PTOs must ensure vaccination and other medical checks as per requirement of the Government of Saudi Arabia. PTOs should be fully responsible for the stay, transportation and payment of compulsory charges to the authorities in Saudi Arabia. PTOs should honour all terms and conditions of the contract signed with the pilgrims,” the policy said.

Validity of the policy

Importantly, the Ministry said it wants the Haj-2013 PTO policy to remain valid for five years, that is, till 2017.

“This policy will remain valid for five years – 2013 to 2017. The qualified list of PTOs will also remain valid for five years. The allocation of seats to the qualified PTOs will be done every year on the basis of the overall quota of seats allocated to PTOs,” the affidavit said.

Noting that Haj 2012 was “smooth and hassle free,” the Ministry said it would want to repeat the experience in 2013. To this end, many of the measures taken in 2012 have been repeated in the 2013 PTO policy.

For Haj 2012, the government had selected a firm of chartered accountants to evaluate a total 720 applications by private tour operators. The firm’s work was in turn monitored by a four-member committee. On the basis of the evaluation, 335 out of 720 PTOs qualified for Haj-2012 and registered with the Ministry. A quota of 45,000 seats was distributed among these selected PTOs. “Haj 2012 was smooth and hassle free and the pilgrims who went through PTOs also were reasonably satisfied with the arrangements made in India and Saudi Arabia. This is evident from a survey conducted in Makkah by the Consulate General of India (CGI), Jeddah of about 4,400 pilgrims who performed Haj 2012 through PTOs,” the affidavit said.

More In: Kerala | National