Fiddling With Faith

An unregistered tour operator duping a large number of Haj aspirants should force the government to monitor the sector and liberalize systems. Actors in the travel sector believe Haj and Umrah can sustain a business of Rs 500 crores turnover a year, reports R S Gull.

By now, police are making all efforts to know from the Wahid brothers—Fabiyan and Arsalan—where so much of the money, anything between eight to eleven crore rupees collected from Hajj aspirants for two years, has gone. This year, nearly 50 individuals, mostly ministers, police officers and lawyers,  could take off and  perform Hajj. The other aspirants have been protesting for getting their money back. Protesters include an aged woman who said she had risked loosing her eyesight on the spinning wheel to save enough money for per forming Hajj.  

“We are questioning them and we will do our best to recover the hard earned money,” SSP Srinagar, Syed Ashiq Bukhari said. Arsalan was arrested at the Mumbai airport within days after the fraud was exposed, and his brother Fabiyan, the mastermind behind Al-Hajeej India was rounded up from a Jaipur suburb in Rajasthan, last week. “We are at it and we will do whatever it takes (to recover the money).”

Prior to their arrest, the DC office had submitted a report to the government, which estimated about 400 to 500 people as victims of the massive fraud. Just days after the report appeared in the press, a bank-issued notice indicated that some of the accused family’s property was mortgaged with the stolen money!

Preliminary investigations had revealed that most of the money deposited in the Al Hajeej account had been drained out, leaving no trace behind. The ‘company’ was already in the red, and part of the funds going to its debtors has not been ruled out. However, the J&K criminal procedure code lacks provisions beyond Section 420(cheating) that can help solve the crisis.

The Wahid brothers’ Al Hajeej India was always a fake company, but the government had never seen the rulebooks to detect it. The organization was neither registered with the tourism ministry, nor approved by the Central Hajj Committee (CHC) or the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.

There are only nine private travel operators (PTO) registered for Hajj pilgrimage operations. These include Al Khuddam Hajj &Umrah Services, Al Huda Travels, Universe Travel Corporation, Al-Hayat Hajj &Omrah Travel Services, Labaika Haj &Umrah Services, Rohani Tours & Travels (Kargil), Sahar Tours & Travels, Gazi Tours & Travels (Magam) and Behreen Travels. All others PTOs claiming to be taking people on Haj or Umrah are fake, and this information is available on the CHC website.

For the 2011 Hajj, while the government flew 8,414 pilgrims, the private sector managed 1082. Interestingly, nine PTOs were authorized to fly only 513 pilgrims, but they purchased berths from PTOs in other Indian states in black and managed to double it. The CHC provided 45,491 berths to 568 PTOs operating in India. All VIPs who performed Hajj through Al-Hajeej this year were on these black tickets purchased by promoters from the black market. A travel company that is registered in Assam has sold 55 berths in J&K through unregistered PTOs against the sanctioned strength of 57 that CHC bestowed it with.

The scam is an opportunity for policymakers to understand the dynamics of a huge business that requires proper checks and balances. Trade insiders assert that policy intervention would help Kashmir double the turnover from an estimated Rs 200 crore.  For this year’s pilgrimage, there were 22000 applications and the CHC could offer the state only 8414 berths.

PTO had only 513 berths and they could send 1082. “The statistics offer an idea of the potential,” says Sheikh Feroz of Al-Khudam, who leads the sector with 113 berths this year. “There are only nine recognized PTOs but the fact is that 41 are operating.”

Feroz says the market has massive potential and policy makers apparently lack vision. “For every pilgrim the state Hajj committee flies to Mecca, two are unable to get a chance, and that in itself is a huge indicator of the potential,” Feroz said. “If the government assesses how many people from J&K use the quota of other states through black market, it can sustain a huge industry in Kashmir.” He believes that a slight increase in the quota to PTO can sustain 100 new PTOs in J&K, as the market is surging by over 20 percent a year.

Apart from Hajj, PTOs usually take two to three groups on Umrah every year. “Right now, the Umrah market is around 3000 seats a year and in the next three years, it will double especially during winter months,” Feroz said. “For most of the summer, these PTOs could contribute to tourism because they have experience and infrastructure.” If policymakers do not enforce transparency, the black market will grow and hurt sentiments of aspirants.


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