India will wait for Saudi Arabia’s decision on whether the haj will happen this year amid the continued spread of the COVID-19, Dr. Maqsood Ahmed Khan, CEO of Hajj Committee of India, told Salaam Gateway.
“India has not yet said no. India is waiting for a call from Saudi Arabia and India will respond to the call depending on what type of a call it receives,” said Dr. Khan.
The national body’s position comes after Singapore and Indonesia both announced they have cancelled the haj this year for their pilgrims, citing health and safety concerns.
Dr. Khan said if the opportunity is given for India to send some pilgrims, he said India will not say no.
“We will say, we will respond to it and we will see what are the conditions…..what they are asking us to do. And accordingly, we will discuss with the State Committees and the Ministry of the Minority Affairs, and respond,” said Dr. Khan.
The Hajj Committee CEO revealed that the haj agreement with Saudi Arabia in December was a normal one based on the usual conditions at that time.
Based on that December agreement, the first of India’s pilgrims are to depart on June 25.
“[Saudi Arabia has] written a letter saying not to go ahead at the moment and wait for their final decision. So that original agreement which we have done in December has been stayed and it is almost as good as cancelled,” said Dr. Khan.
He added that to his knowledge, the Saudi authorities are still weighing all considerations and options for the haj this year.
Sharing his personal opinion, Dr. Khan said he believes this year’s haj will be in a reduced form for which much time may not be required, possibly running from July 1 to 31.
While uncertainty still looms, he said prospective pilgrims are still willing to go.
“Hajjis think that we are ready to go. So, nobody is asking for a refund. They are asking for the schedule. Most of them are of the opinion that if they are not able to go this year, they don’t want their money back; they want to go next year. There may be some scared persons but the majority of applicants are willing to go,” he said.
“If we have Indian government agreeing, the Home ministry can fix up the schedule at the eleventh hour. So, within no time also, the persons can be sent to Saudi,” he added, highlighting that India has managed to fly back many Indians stranded in different parts of the world despite the prevailing lockdown.
“This will be a top-level decision, supported by the government. So, I think even if they decide something by 15th or 20th or even by the end of June, it will not be difficult to send pilgrims. The flights can go by the first of July,” he said.
With more conditions likely to come into play, Dr. Khan agrees there will definitely be higher costs and a shorter haj this year because of the need to implement social distancing.
“Earlier there were four persons in one room, but now there could be two persons. We are waiting on the capacity of flights also – how many will be allowed. So, the cost will be more for Hajjis”.
In regards to the budget allocated or spent by the Indian government, he clarifies that not a single penny will go to pilgrims’ expenditure, for example in the form of subsidies as was the case up to 2018.
“The government budget is generally for health and other supporting arrangements. So, that will be there from the government for whichever number of Hajjis go.”
Dr. Khan doesn’t think there will be any additional cost to the government budget because while the expenditure will increase per person, at the same time the number of pilgrims will be reduced.
PRIVATE TOUR OPERATORS
While the Hajj Committee booking starts much earlier, the peak season for private haj tour operators is Sha'aban, Ramadan and Shawwal months when most of the bookings take place.
“The booking should have been started by the end of March and peaked during Ramadan. But, given that the lockdown was continuing during that period, private booking has almost stopped,” said Shoukat Ibrahim Tamboli, chairman of All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association (AIHUTOA).
India is supposed to send 175,000 pilgrims, of which 50,000 are meant to go through private tour operators and the rest through the Hajj Committee. The request to the Saudi haj ministry for an additional quota of 25,000 hasn’t been approved or announced yet.
“What I know is that the Saudi haj ministry has called the Indian Embassy for a meeting on Monday (June 8). So, it will depend on what discussions or decisions are taken at that meeting. Everybody is waiting what percentage or quota will be given to India, and with what terms or conditions,” said Tamboli.
If there is a reduction in the quota from India, Tamboli thinks the government might give priority to Hajj Committee applicants and the private operators may not get to send any pilgrims this year. “So, it all depends on the policy of the government of India.”
Also, the majority of pilgrims that depart from India are older than 60 years of age. “So, if Saudi puts an age restriction, this will impact the Indian contingent badly,” said Tamboli, referring to the possibility that only younger and able-bodied pilgrims would be allowed to travel.
If pilgrims have to do a COVID-19 test, Tamboli questions who will be responsible for this. What happens in the case of a pilgrim testing positive at the last minute, he asks.
“Will it be of passenger, tour operator or Hajj Committee? Because once the visa is stamped, it won’t be cancelled. So, if someone is sent back from there, there will be a problem,” said Tamboli.
He revealed that the usual medical tests that are done before embarking on haj flights haven’t been completed yet as all the hospitals that are supposed to run these have been put on COVID-19 duty.
Haj operators are also worried about big-ticket costs. The big and reputable operators have already made their hotel bookings, for example.
“Their money is stuck now,” said Tamboli, adding that many operators still haven’t received any refunds for their umrah bookings although refunds for visa fees refund are under process.
Saudi authorities suspended all umrah since late February.
“Generally, the hotel booking for Ramadan month were done some five-six months prior. So, no tour operator has received any refund for Ramadan booking from hotels in Saudi,” said Tamboli.
(Reporting by Syed Ameen Kader; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim email@example.com)
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