Uncertainty prevails over Hajj, the annual pilgrimage

J.S. Ifthekhar

Hyderabad: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But the opposite is true of the Telangana State Hajj Committee. For the last two years it has no work and its employees have no option but to while away their time. Thanks to COVID-19 the annual Hajj pilgrimage has been a washout for Indian pilgrims in 2020 and 2021 with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Saudi Arabia, deciding to allow only citizens and residents inside the kingdom to attend the Hajj in limited numbers.

Will the Hajj 2022 be a dramatically scaled down affair too? There is no clear answer yet, although applications are being received from the Hajj aspirants. A bilateral agreement between the Government of India and the Saudi Arabian government with regard to Hajj 2022 is scheduled to take place next month. Things are expected to clear up then. Also, the Hajj guidelines and the quota allotted to India will be known. Arafat Day, the highpoint of Hajj, is tentatively fixed on July 9.

Officials at the State Hajj Committee are keeping their fingers crossed. However, they privately admit that international pilgrims might be barred from performing the Hajj this year too. “Till now there is no sign of Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, being opened for Indian citizens. India is still among the nine countries which are not allowed to send direct flights to Saudi Arabia.  So it is unlikely that international pilgrims will be allowed for Hajj next year,” says an official requesting anonymity.

This confusion has put paid to the hopes of lakhs of Muslims who are eagerly looking forward to undertake the journey of a lifetime. Normally about 2 lakh Indians travel to Saudi Arabia every year for Hajj through the Hajj Committee of India and private tour operators. For the first time Hajj applications are being received for a three month period starting November 1. But till date just 1400 applications are received at the State Hajj Committee here. In the combined State of Andhra Pradesh so many applications used to be received on a single day itself. After bifurcation the number of applications has come down at the Telangana State Hajj Committee, yet they were never as low as this, officials say. In 2019 10,000 Hajj aspirants had applied.

The Corona pandemic and its new variants have definitely dampened the spirits. Another factor that is restraining Hajj hopefuls is the rising cost of pilgrimage. Hajj 2022 is expected to be a costly affair.

Pilgrims going through the Hajj Committee will have to shell down around Rs. 5 lakh apiece. The private tour operators will charge much more, at least an additional one lakh rupees, it is said. During 2019 the Hajj Committee fares were Rs 3.40 lakh for ‘Green’ category accommodation (which is nearer to the Haram Sharif, the focal point of Hajj) and Rs. 3 lakh for Azizia category. With Hajj becoming dearer, many aspirants are having second thoughts.

There is a catch for pilgrims going for Umrah now. They can fly from Hyderabad to Jeddah by Saudi Airlines or Air Arabia but in the return journey they have to come through another country. “Also one has to go through 5 days quarantine in Saudi Arabia. For this reason not many people are going to Umrah”, said Siraj Khan of Al Azam Tours and Travels.

Meanwhile, the Hajj Committee of India has decided to hold a two day “Training of Trainers” programme  on January 8 and 9 in Mumbai. In this programme comprehensive training will be imparted about logistics, ritual and other related aspects of Hajj to the selected persons.