Putting an end to speculations around the decision on Hajj subsidy, the government has decided to abolish the financial support given to pilgrims. The decision was taken last week during the federal cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan. The Hajj policy for 2019 and the proposal of the Ministry for Religious Affairs to grant a subsidy of Rs 45,000 to each pilgrim was discussed. The PMLN government, in its last tenure, had given a subsidy of Rs 45,000 to each pilgrim. However, the current PTI government decided to discontinue this subsidy in the new policy. According to this new policy, the government quota for pilgrims will be 60 per cent, and the private travel agencies will get a share of 40 per cent.

The government’s decision is a welcoming one. Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and mandatory for Muslims that must be carried out at least once by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey. If a Muslim does not have the financial means to carry out the Hajj, he/she will not be penalised for it. In the wake of these circumstances, the Hajj subsidy makes no sense either ethically or religiously.

The question that needs to be asked is how were the previous governments financing the Hajj subsidy? The answer is through the tax money paid by the Pakistanis. A significant portion of Pakistan’s tax revenue comes from indirect taxation, which is also called sales tax. Sales tax is an indiscriminate regressive tax. This means that persons of all financial standings are subject to this form of taxation. Therefore, the money allocated for the Hajj subsidy might be the money paid by an orphan or a widow which he or she would have paid while purchasing an item for everyday use. Why should people belonging to the lowest strata of the society pay money for an obligation that needs to be performed only when a Muslim has the financial means of doing so? It is against this background that the government’s decision deserves applause.

While the government through its decision was able to take care of one mischief, it has left the other one untouched. The mischief is the quota system divided between the government and the private sector. This quota system has remained a highly contentious issue in the past. The matter has even been litigated in the apex court. According to the decision of the apex court, the government is within its constitutional right to have a quota system. However, the mere look at the division of quota hints arbitrariness and power struggle. This government, like previous ones, wants to control a business that should be outsourced to the private sector. There is no logic behind the origin or division of this quota system. The apparent reason behind it is that the private sector would make pilgrimage a profit-making business and, therefore, the government wants to prevent this. However, if this is the case, then why should not the government keep the whole 100 per cent to itself. This, however, is not the case and shows the fallacy in the argument of the proponents of the aforementioned quota system.

As far as profiteering is concerned, if the government can trust the private sector when it comes to the provision of basic goods that are necessary for existence, why cannot it do the same for pilgrimage? The government role should be to ensure free competition in the open market. If various private companies are offering Hajj packages, no one company will be able to charge exorbitant prices. People who have the maximum willingness to pay will be available to avail these services. The government’s job would be to ensure a transparent bidding process and prevent cartelisation among the contractors.

The government should discontinue the policy of appeasement. The Ministry of Religious Affairs wants to increase government quota as much as possible not out of sincerity but because it provides opportunities for money making. In the past, there have been massive Hajj corruption scandals, and federal ministers have been sacked and prosecuted for the same. This testifies that the government quota has become an instrument of abuse and corruption and the activity must be outsourced to the private sector and free market.

The government has taken a bold step and must be given the due praise. While the government decision may be unpopular in certain segments of the society, it is undoubtedly the correct one. Pakistan is a debt-ridden country and cannot afford unnecessary subsidies. The burden on national exchequer should be reduced as much as possible. The money allocated for the subsidy can be used for other noble ends like improving the healthcare or education system. The Hajj subsidy was also discontinued in India last year, and the cut in funds meant for subsidy were allocated for education empowerment and welfare of girls from minority communities. Perhaps, we will be able to follow suit.

 

The writer is a practicing lawyer and has an LLM from The University of Chicago.