Jeddah — A philanthropist and former bureaucrat has suggested that the government of India should open bids to all international airlines for Haj transportation so as to bring down the cost of the pilgrimage and do away with the much-criticized Haj subsidy given to Indian pilgrims.
“The Indian government must think about airfare for its pilgrims.
International bids should be invited, and whichever airline offers the minimum should be given the responsibility to carry Indian pilgrims on the journey of a lifetime,” Syed Zafar Mahmood, who served as Haj consul at the Indian consulate in Jeddah from 1988-91, told Saudi Gazette in an interview here.
“This way the price of pilgrimage will come down and the financial advantage will go to pilgrims,” he said, adding, “If bidding is thrown open, then no Haj subsidy is required.”
“I am against the Haj subsidy. It means other people pay for your Haj. Why should others pay for your Haj?” asked Mahmood, who is the president of the Zakat Foundation of India, an NGO involved in the educational and social uplift of Indian Muslims.
He said that on his return to India he will seek an appointment with the minister of external affairs to bring to her notice the issues related to Indian pilgrims.
“The government of India does its best to provide the best services to Indian pilgrims. This is the largest movement of Indians going abroad for religious obligation. All the ministries concerned are performing their responsibilities really well,” said Mahmood, who during his tenure as Haj consul is credited with introducing a prearranged accommodation scheme for Indian pilgrims, starting an annual Haj action plan and discontinuing the pilgrimage by ship.
Mahmood, who was instrumental in establishing schools for the Indian community in five Saudi cities, said that the private sector should take the lead in opening higher educational institutes for the children of Indian expatriates in the Kingdom.
“If there are any issues related to recognition, etc., these can be taken up by the government of India,” he said, while offering assurance that he would fully support such an institute.
Mahmood, who was the prime minister’s officer on special duty at the high-level committee on social, economic and educational status of India’s Muslim community better known as the Sachar Committee, said that the lack of voice in governance is the main reason for the backwardness of Muslims in India.
“Muslims are underrepresented in governance. Governance is of two types: Political and executive. Some 90 percent of governance is done by the bureaucracy, only 10 percent by politicians. Even in lawmaking, if a bill has to be passed, a bureaucrat drafts the bill and the points a minister makes in parliament while introducing the bill are also prepared by bureaucrats. All policy formulations are done by the bureaucracy. Its implementation is also done by the bureaucracy.
“According to the 2011 census, which is the latest census, Muslims represent 14.2 percent of the population in India. In parliament there should be 77 members.
But ever since independence till the current Lok Sabah (lower House of Parliament), there have been on average less than 25 members from the Muslim community. Once it went down to 18, and once it went up to 44, but the average has been less than 25. So it is less than one third of what is due to Muslims,” said Mahmood, who has represented India at several international conferences as an Indian Muslim scholar.
He said that the biggest drawback for Muslims has been their underrepresentation in legislatures and municipal corporations. The reason for this has been the fact that a large number of Muslim-concentrated constituencies have been reserved for the Scheduled Castes. Muslims by definition do not fall in the SC category. This is a gross injustice meted out to Muslims during the last 70 years or so. Nothing was done by the Congress-led UPA government, he said, adding, “We have taken up the matter with the present government also.”
“The Zakat Foundation of India created a delimitation commission cell three years ago where continuous research is taking place on this issue. Now we are ready with all the data of all assembly and parliamentary constituencies. We are going to publish it within the next six months. Then we will once again take up the mater at the political level. If it’s not done at the political level, then we will go to the court.
“This is going to make a big change because the voice of Muslims has to be heard in legislatures in proportion to their part of the population.”
He said that the appointment of the Sachar Committee was a “bold step” because since independence no such thing had ever happened specifically for Muslims. For minorities in general it happened once or twice.
Another important thing about the Committee is that it has not been challenged at any level since it was tabled in parliament in 2006. The Sachar Committee recommended 150 measures to uplift Muslims economically, socially and educationally.
The UPA government amended the waqf law in 2013. It started some scholarship schemes for minority students. Some 91 minority-concentration districts were identified. And for infrastructure set up in these districts, billions of rupees were granted under a multi-sectorial development scheme. However, the then planning commission learned that the funds meant for MCDs were spent somewhere else.
But there were so many recommendations of the Sachar panel which were not taken up by the UPA govt. The most important observation was that Muslims are underrepresented in legislatures and in municipal corporations, said Mahmood who is also president of the Interfaith Coalition for Peace, chairman of God’s Grace group of educational institutions, and president of Iqbal Academy of India.
In reply to a question about the foreign funding of these NGOs, he said that the Interfaith Coalition for Peace gets some funding from European Christian organizations. It comes through the government and returns are filed continuously every year.
“We are very conscious about laws and rules. And we go strictly by the rules.”