New Delhi: Taking ahead the process of ferrying Haj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia by the sea route, the government has floated global tenders for roping in shipping companies and the operations may start as early as the next Haj season, Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi informed on Monday.
“There has been much progress on this front. The Saudi Arabia government’s consent has already been obtained and now we have floated global tenders to rope in shipping companies to ferry Indian Haj pilgrims to Jeddah,” Naqvi said.
“We have set a target to complete all the process by 2019. However, there are many other things which we need to consider including the security of the pilgrims as there are some stressed stretches on the route such as Syria. If everything goes right, we may be able to ferry the pilgrims from next year itself, that is, Haj 2019,” he added.
Travelling by ship is likely to significantly reduce the travel cost and make Haj affordable to many more people, Naqvi said. However, the Minister said, it was hard to tell at this point how much the actual reduction in the fare would be.
“Initially, there would be only one embarkation point for the pilgrims choosing to travel by sea and it would be Mumbai. The modern ships can cover the 2,300-odd nautical miles distance between Mumbai and Jeddah in three to four days,” Naqvi said.
Haj travel by sea was discontinued in 1995 as MV Akbari, the ship which used to ferry the pilgrims, aged and became unfit for use. The idea to revive the sea route was mooted by the Minority Affairs Ministry last year to offset the effect of the subsequent withdrawal of subsidy.
The government has withdrawn the Haj subsidy from this year. However, the cost has not gone up drastically, as had been feared, due to a number of effective steps taken by the government such as negotiating with the airlines to rationalise the air fares and giving the pilgrims the option to choose their embarkation point.
This year, 1,75,025 pilgrims from India will go for Haj. Of these, 1,28,702 pilgrims will go through the Haj Committee of India — which includes about 47 per cent women — while 47,323 Haj pilgrims will go through private tour operators, Naqvi said.
A total of 3,55,604 applications had been received for Haj, including 1,89,217 male and 1,66,387 female applicants.
Besides, for the first time Muslim women from India will also go to Haj without ‘mehram’ (male companion). A total of 1,308 women applied to go for Haj without mehram and all of them have been granted permission by the government.
“This year, we are also setting up two 40-bed hospitals in Mecca, one 15-bed hospital in Medina, 10 branch dispensaries in Mecca, three dispensaries in Medina and one at Jeddah Haj terminal to provide better healthcare facilities to the Indian Hajis,” Naqvi said.