NEW DELHI, May 8 (UPI Asia) – The Supreme Court Tuesday ordered India's government to end the practice of subsidizing the airfare for the country's Muslim citizens traveling to Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj pilgrimage.
"The policy is best done away with," Justices Altamas Kabir and Ranjana Desai said in their order, fixing a deadline of 10 years for the subsidy's elimination.
Surprisingly, many Muslims welcomed the order, saying it would free them to travel by airlines other than the government-owned Air India, whose subsidized fares were often higher than the offer from the private airlines.
Saudi Arabian authorities have fixed India's quota at 11000 Muslims to travel for the Haj every year.
The Supreme Court's order came on an appeal from the Indian government against an order of the high court of the western state of Maharashtra. The Bombay High Court had earlier directed the government to let private airlines ferry 800 Muslims seeking to travel for the Haj.
The court also said it would next assess the functioning of Haj Committee of India, an NGO that selects applicants from among India's Muslims for the Haj.
During the hearings, the Indian government had defended the subsidy -- which began in 1993 -- and said it had reformed the policy so that first-timers were given preference.
Earlier, it allowed Muslims to go on Haj every five years. This was changed to once in a lifetime, the Center told the court.
In 2009, the Indian government paid $155 million (8.3 billion rupees), adjusted for inflation, as subsidy for the travelers. The government told the court it did not yet have figures for 2012.
The Supreme Court also ordered the government to restrict to two the number of officials as government representatives on the Haj each year.
"These goodwill delegations need to be scrapped altogether. They are no longer relevant." The judges said there was no need to send "even nine or ten persons" and that the policy to send official delegations with the pilgrims was "bad religious practice".
The judges told the government to bring them details of the subsidy as also the criteria the Haj Committee adopted in choosing the pilgrims.
India has the third highest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. At 15 per cent of the population, the Muslims in India are estimated to number 180 million.