by Raashid Andrabi
SRINAGAR: The applications for Hajj 2024 in Kashmir commenced on December 4, 2023, with a submission deadline initially set for December 20, 2023.
Authorities, however, faced an unexpected challenge as the number of applicants fell below expectations, prompting an extension of the deadline to January 15, 2024. Officials cite the extension as a response to the uncertainty surrounding passport issuance, with many applicants awaiting their essential travel documents.
Kashmir is now poised for an unconventional turn in the 2024 Hajj pilgrimage, with all 7800 applicants from Jammu and Kashmir automatically selected due to a shortfall in aspirants, not meeting the allocated 11,000 seats. In 2023, 14200 applications were submitted, with 12067 pilgrims undertaking the sacred journey.
Unlike past years, where a draw of lots accommodated double the applicants, this pilgrimage season faces an unusual situation with a reduced number of applicants, eliminating the need for the customary selection process.
Challenges persist for locals, grappling with soaring prices and delays in passport processing. The bureaucratic bottleneck in Kashmir surrounding passport issuance has created a tight deadline and slow arrival of crucial travel documents, leaving many anxious about their ability to participate in the pilgrimage.
“The overarching factor is the inflation affecting the affordability of the pilgrimage,” lamented an aspiring pilgrim, echoing the sentiment of many who are turning to the cheaper alternative of Umrah instead.
The final rate for this year’s pilgrimage is pending, awaiting the conclusion of tenders for air tickets and associated activities. The first flight for the Hajj pilgrimage in 2024 is scheduled to depart from the Srinagar embarkation point on May 9, 2024.
Reflecting on previous years, notably in 2015, 2016, and 2017, a significant number of applicants (ranging from 25,000 to 30,000) submitted their applications for Hajj, but only around 11,000 were able to perform the pilgrimage. An official from the Hajj Committee Jammu and Kashmir has disclosed that 441 applications have been received under the reserved category for 70+ age group applicants. Additionally, applications from 44 ladies have been received, expressing the desire to embark on the holy journey with their Mahram.
In a strategic move to address the financial challenges faced by prospective pilgrims, authorities are advising applicants to consider opting for embarkation from Delhi and Mumbai. These locations are expected to be less expensive compared to the Srinagar embarkation point.
Hajj has always been a significant economic activity in Kashmir. By an average, Jammu and Kashmir spend slightly more than Rs 750 crore a year on the pilgrimages to Makkah.
In 2023, with each person bearing a cost of Rs 4.80 lakh, the collective expenditure by these pilgrims in 2023 reached approximately Rs 604 crore. This excludes the resources they will be spending from their own pockets.
Besides, around 1000 individuals in 2023 embarked on Hajj through private tour operators. The charges, in this case, vary, from Rs 6.5 lakh to Rs 13 lakh per head depending on the facilities they wish to avail. Lodging is the key cost – the more one wishes to stay closer to the Kaaba, the more expensive the accommodation gets.
Calculated on an average of Rs 7 lakh per head, the costs were around Rs 70 crore.
The question that now remains is whether the rising costs are an issue or the dwindling pockets of Kashmiri people that have suffered an intense setback over time.