New Delhi: After a gap of nearly a quarter-century, the air at the Mumbai port may once again be filled with chanting of 'Talbiyah', a prayer Muslims invoke before they set off for or during the annual Haj pilgrimage.
A high-level committee, formed by the government to frame the Haj Policy, 2018, is exploring reviving the option of sending pilgrims via sea route to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia next year onwards. The practice of ferrying devotees between Mumbai and Jeddah by waterways was stopped from 1995 on account of MV Akbari, the ship which would transport pilgrims, growing old, a source in the Union Minority Affairs Ministry said.
The option is now being weighed in the light of a 2012 Supreme Court order to the government to abolish by 2022 the subsidy offered to Haj pilgrims who travel by air. Dispatching pilgrims through ships will help cut down travel expenses by "nearly half" as compared to airfares, thus compensating them for the absence of subsidy, a source in the ministry said.
At present, devotees undertake the journey by air from 21 embarkation points, including Mumbai and Delhi, across the country. An economy class ticket for the around five-hour flight between Mumbai and Jeddah would roughly cost anything between Rs 25,000 and Rs52,000 (without subsidy). If one boards from Delhi, the ticket price for the same category varies from Rs18,000 to Rs61,000 per head.
"Another advantage with ships available these days is they are modern and well-equipped to ferry 4,000 to 5,000 persons at a time. They can cover the 2,300-odd nautical miles one-side distance between the two port cities within just two-three days," the source added. One nautical mile is equivalent to 1.8 km.
When asked, MoS for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who attended the panel's meeting in Mumbai earlier this week, confirmed that the alternative is being given a thought to. "The panel is exploring all the options available, including seaways, under the new policy. It will be a revolutionary, pilgrim-friendly decision, if things work out," Naqvi told PTI. Besides Mumbai, Kolkata and Kochi ports are the two other coastal cities the panel has identified as probable embarkation points to facilitate pilgrims from eastern and southern regions of India respectively.
Naqvi said his ministry will discuss the issue with the Shipping Ministry too for the availability of ports. He added the air services for Jeddah will continue to be there for those who can afford the journey. Before the sea route was closed in 1995, it used to take nearly a week for the pilgrims to reach Jeddah from Yellow Gate in Mumbai's Mazgaon, the ministry source said.
Saudi Arabia had earlier this year increased India's Haj quota from 136,000 to 170,000. A total of 135,000 Indian devotees undertook the pilgrimage last year.