Almost every year, more than 30,000 Muslims go on Haj and Umrah pilgrimages from Jammu and Kashmir and spend more than Rs 750 crore. The sector that manages this sliver of pilgrim tourism has immense potential of growth if the policymakers intervene to take it to the next level, Masood Hussain reports
Gradually, the Makkah pilgrimage, mandatory on every Muslim who can afford it, is gradually emerging a major economic event in Kashmir. With the government and the private players managing part of the Haj and the subsequent Umrah journeys, this is emerging as the perfect model of the private-public partnership (PPP) that has the potential of a quick growth if the grey areas are addressed, stakeholders say.
In 2018, more than 12000 people went to the Haj pilgrimage from Jammu and Kashmir. Before and after the Haj, almost 20,000 Muslims went on Umrah and spent almost a fortnight in Saudi Arabia. This is in addition to around 2000 Shia Muslims who go to holy shrines in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Since July 4, the Haj pilgrims have started taking off and the process will continue till July 29. This year, 11,600 pilgrims are going on Haj through State Haj Committee and additional 3000 through private operators and Haj Group Organisers (HGO).
By an average, Jammu and Kashmir spends slightly more than Rs 750 crore a year on the pilgrimages to Makkah. This has evolved a full-fledged economy of faith in which dozens of small companies are working and upgrading the processes to make it no-frills journey.
The pilgrimage to Makkah has evolved over the years. At one point of time, it worked slightly the same way in Saudi Arabia as the particular clans and families managed the Urs at various shrines across Kashmir. They would visit Muslim communities across the world and offer their services to the intending Haj pilgrims and later manage them once they would touch the sores of Saudi Arabia.
As communication improved, the government in Riyadh took over the entire process. Soon, the countries were given quotas so that the host state would be able to manage them. As the states became the direct stakeholders, the Haj pilgrimage automatically became the government exercises across the world. This process led to the birth of the All India Haj Committee as a statutory body and nodal agency for the pilgrimage in India, in 2002. All the states in India are its members.
This is why the state’s Haj Committee in Jammu and Kashmir is the major player in the entire exercise because it sends the maximum number from the state to the pilgrimage every year. The Haj Committee operates from its sprawling Rs 22 crore Haj House premises in Bemina, now the medulla of the yearly exercise. Unlike private operators who also are involved in Umrah, the Haj Committee is only associated with the Haj, once a year.
In 2018, 10293 pilgrims performed Haj through the Haj Committee. The number is gradually increasing. In 2015, only 4866 pilgrims from J&K went to Haj which increased to 6359 in 2016 and 8123 in 2017. In 2019, almost 11,600 pilgrims will be flying in 70 flights and the departure will continue on a daily basis between July 4 and July 29. This is in addition to the 3000 additional pilgrims who will be performing Haj through Private Tour Operators, now called Haj Group Organisers (HGO).
“The new policy has been the major change maker in the entire process and the systems,” Qamar Sajad, former CEO of the J&K Haj Committee said. “Though the scrapping of the subsidy component has made it slightly expensive (Rs 45000 per ticket), there were various policy interventions that have helped improve the process.”
Under the earlier system, there were two categories which had a reservation: applicants with age above 70 years; aspirants who could not get a berth even after applying for five consecutive seasons. In the new policy, the first category survived but the second reserved section was done away with. “These two categories were devouring most of the quota but in 2018 lot of seats were spared and went to the districts,” Sajad said.
But, still, there were more applications and quite a few berths. Against 32500 applicants in 2018, only 10293 seats were available. This was despite the fact that Delhi gave additional 2000 berths, over and above the rightful allocations (4.7 per cent of the overall quota available with the central Haj Committee). While the 70 years above application consumed slightly more than one-fifth of the availability, it still accommodated many applicants from other ages. Officials, however, insist the youngest Haj aspirants are getting down in numbers. In 2019, 797 pilgrims having the age of 70 years or more will be performing Haj under reserved category.
Officials said they had received 35290 applications including 15506 women. But the quota is slightly more than one-third of it. Those who are unable to get a berth usually try for a private option. That is where the HGOs get their business. “We have quite a few seats allotted but we tie-up with some non-local agencies who have the quota and we ensure they go.” This year, the private operators across India have got a 50,000-seat quota and Jammu and Kashmir is taking only a slice of 3000 berths from that. Most of it is through the non-local agencies. In 2018, the state, however, could not send any female without a Muharram (a known close relative) despite the policy permitted groups of four women without a Muharram in the 45-plus age group. “There were some applications, but once we investigated, we got the information that they all have Muharams alive so the applications were rejected,” Sajad said. In 2019, not a single female had moved an application to avail this particular category. However, 54 females whose male Mahram members got the berths, unlike them, were accommodated.
There have been improvements on the infrastructure front. Now pilgrims stay in the 500-bed Haj House and undergo all processes to board a direct flight from Srinagar excepting the immigration. “After the Haj season is over, we try to utilise the Haj House to host the marriage ceremonies so that we add up to earnings,” a senior Haj Committee executive said. “There were problems in 2016 but in the last two years, we made almost Rs 10 lakh and next year we plan to improve it.” The Committee is managed by two officers from the state government and nine staffers from the central Haj Committee in addition to some casuals whose services are utilised as per the requirements.
Subsidy scrapping, however, has increased the costs: almost Rs 45,000 per head. But Srinagar continues to be the costliest destination for Haj across India. “If you join the flock from Delhi, you will get it cheap by Rs 30,000 but you will have to pay for the travel to Delhi and boarding for at least three days, something that is free in Srinagar,” Sajad said. Around 514 pilgrims did avail this option in 2018. “The increased costs for a ticket are because the aircraft that fly the pilgrims from Srinagar fly without passengers one-side.” During Haj season, all air carriers escalate their rates in the Muslim belts because they have assured business of flying millions to one destination.
In 2017, the Haj Committee had arranged bigger 420-seat aircraft but those proved inconvenient as the pilgrims had longer waiting time after they disembarked. “In 2018, the Committee had one aircraft with 360 seats and three with 164 berths each on daily basis,” according to officials, insisting it reduced the complaints.
In 2018, per head costs through Haj Committee were Rs 2.60 lakh and almost Rs 3 lakh in the two categories. Of this, every pilgrim gets a refund of 2100 Saudi Riyals (Rs 37000).
This year, the Green Category of the Haj Committee cost Rs 304,000 and the pilgrims falling in Azizia Category paid Rs 267,000. HGOs normally seek four lakh rupees per head.
But the pilgrims undertaking the pilgrimage through Haj Group Organisers (HGO) pay more and get improved services. “It is completely a different exercise as far as facilities go,” Sheikh Feroz of al-Khudam Haj and Umrah Services said. “Haj Committee has the provision of one Khudam (guide) for every 200 pilgrims and we provide one Mualim (teacher) and one guide to every 50, or even less.” At places like Mina and Arafat, the HGO-managed pilgrims can have access to better food and spacious shelter unlike those managed by the Haj Committee. HGOs claim, unlike Haj Committee, they offer laundry facilities and cooked food.
“We were allotted only 500 seats for all the HGO in Jammu and Kashmir but some of our tie-up with other non-local operators and we eventually sent 2040 pilgrims in 2018,” Feroz said. “This year, we plan to send around 3000 pilgrims even though the economic situation has greatly altered after the early snowfall devastated the apple orchards.” By an average, the costs per head for Haj go up to Rs 4.5 lakh for 40-days package and in certain cases much higher, especially if the aspirants wish to perform Haj within a week.
The evolution of the HGOs in Kashmir is a long story. Right now there are around 80 and maybe more HGOs who work in the pilgrim tourism sector. Till 2018, only two HGOs were recognised; al-Khuddam and Universe Travel Co. This probably was because of the age of these two companies.
But this year, the systems have changed to some extent in the interest of the HGOs. The Haj Committee permitted ten HGOs from Jammu and Kashmir to take as many as 712 pilgrims to Haj at the rates that the Haj Committee has set. This is in addition to their quota. Al-Khuddam Haj and Umrah Services was given 150 berths which include a basic quota of 114 and an additional quota of 36 seats. “These 36 seats will go to the pilgrims who will be taken to Haj by us at the costs of the state Haj Committee but the facilities will be ours,” al-Khudam CEO Feroz Ahmad said. “This is a special category that makes us the top and distinct one in the state.”
As many as 106 seats were given to Universal Travel Corporation and Alhuda Travels. These include 79 seats of basic quota and 27 berths under additional quota. Seven other registered HGOs were given 50 seats each. These include Gazi Tours and Travels, Al Hayat Haj and Umrah Travel Services, Al Gazali Tour and Travels, Rohani Tours and Travels, Labiaka Haj and Umrah Service, BehreenTravels and Sehr Tours and Travels. This relaxation came at a time when the processes have become quite stringent. “You need to have IATA membership for $ 30,000 and they pay a yearly fee of $ 10,000,” Feroz said. “After this, one has to pay 2 lakh Saudi Riyals as a deposit for accreditation and wait for five years and that is a lifetime.”
To manage this situation, the HGOs are allying themselves with bigger players and keep the show going. This helps them acquire knowledge and pick up the skills. Raj Baba Tours and Travels, one of the association recently submitted a huge amount with the Saudi embassy to get accredited for managing visas and that is an additional new facility that was added to the HGO circuit in Kashmir, insiders said. “We would spoil weeks in Mumbai and Delhi to get the visas stamped and now that service will be locally available,” Feroz said.
Off the Haj season, the HGOs are keeping the show going on through Umrah, which is numerically much bigger than Haj but is spread across the year. “Last year, we sent more than 20,000 people on Umrah and the new season also did well and will resume post-Haj,” Feroz said. The Umrah numbers were slightly less than 28000 and 25000 from Kashmir in 2017 and 2016, respectively. “As more and more players are getting into the sector, the number is gradually increasing and in most of the cases, these are families which go for Umrah.” Feroz hoped that 2019 would see almost 30 to 35 thousand people from Jammu and Kashmir going to Umrah.
It is not costly, but it keeps the show going. By average, it costs Rs 75,000 for a fortnight-long journey.
Off late, the families in Kashmir prefer going to Umrah during winters when it is freezing cold back home, schools are off and there is nothing much worth doing at home. The trend is emerging quite a movement. “Most of the urban areas prefer autumn and winter and most of the periphery prefer early spring and winter,” Feroz said. “Though the Umrah can be performed for almost 10 months now, the HGOs work for almost seven months because nobody is keen to go in peak summer.”
Interestingly, the rush for Umrah during Ramzan is quite less in Kashmir because, for the last many years, the month of fasting falls in summer. “The year the month of fasting is in winter, you will see hoards of people going for Umrah,” Feroz said. “It will take a few years more and we will have to add up to our facilities to manage that rush, given the prevailing trend during winters.”
The sector insiders said that it has the potential of going to the next level if the governance structure intervenes. “For every package we sell, we are supposed to pay five per cent GST,” Feroz said. “Since the ticket forms a major part of the package, it is also having the GST element inbuilt and then most of the amount that we spend is on accommodation and transport abroad where we pay local tax. This makes it completely expensive.”
Srinagar is a declared international airport and the only off-shore connectivity is for the Haj pilgrimage. Even that facility is being offered to the pilgrims flying through Haj Committee. The trade suggests that if there is some connectivity to the Middle East on a weekly basis during winters, it will improve the sector.
Given the importance to the pilgrimage, the HGOs have to ensure that the sector does not get a bad name. A few years back, Hajeej India, an HGO took a lot of money from the pilgrims, closed the shop and fled. It triggered a serious crisis, forcing authorities to register a case and make arrests. Though some money was recovered and one of the three father-sons was repeatedly arrested, the exact status of the case is not known.
Feroz said they are very sensitive on this and that is why the association came into being. “If we see even an iota of malpractice or unfair means, we quickly react because it impacts the entire sector,” he said. “This sector is gradually growing and cannot afford a bad name. This can force the aspiring pilgrims to use the services of non-locals which mean capital flight.”
Besides a section of the Shia Muslims go to the holy sites in Middle East and that is another part of the pilgrim tourism. “This is a vast circuit comprising Karbala, Najaf, Kaznain, and Samarra in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” Raashid Maqbool, a media teacher said. “Off late, the 40-days Arabaeen Walk involving a walk for 90 km between Najaf to Karbala is attracting a lot of people and is emerging a major event,” Maqbool said these two events might be involving more than 2000 people a year from Kashmir and some HGOs are exclusively managing this.