Belt-tightening and Hajj

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The government has decided to withdraw the subsidy on Hajj, causing the expenses for the pilgrimage to rise. The withdrawal of the Rs45,000 subsidy could save the government between Rs5 billion and Rs8 billion. However, coupled with inflation, the cost of the pilgrimage is now Rs100,000 higher than last year.
Opposition parties have rejected the government’s move, saying that the party that claimed to turn the governance pattern on the model of Makkah and Madinah is making it difficult for people to visit these holy cities. Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif says the government should be making it easier for people to perform Hajj rather than creating more difficulties. Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani also suggested that maintaining a subsidy would have been a better route to take.
Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri, however, hit back by noting, “Riyasat-e-Madina does not mean sending people to do Hajj for free. Those on whom the pilgrimage is an obligation should not do it using public funds.” This is a significant point because, just like pregnant women are exempt from fasting and poor people are not required to pay Zakat, Hajj is not obligatory for those who cannot afford it. As the government’s representatives have noted, it is difficult to justify giving out a large subsidy at a time of belt-tightening across the board.
Unfortunately, we have a history of the rich and powerful performing Hajj and Umrah at the government expense. Many politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and other private citizens have benefited from this, and some of the harshest critics of the move had themselves been beneficiaries of directly- or indirectly-subsidised pilgrimages. It just may be that one day when the economy and the government’s books sort themselves out, the restoration of the subsidy can be debated. But for the interim, the government finds it difficult to escape the wrath of opposition.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2019.

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