How India's 'Ship of Haj' from Mumbai to Jeddah will benefit poor Muslims



The Ministry of Shipping last week published tenders inviting private companies to operate ships between Mumbai and Jeddah. The private contractor who would run passenger ships between Mumbai and Jeddah would have a contract period of five years and be required to operate ships for three months during the Haj season from July to September.

According to the government’s tender, the private company would need to have two kinds of vessels to ferry Haj pilgrims. One to carry around 4,000 to 4,500 passengers and another with a carrying capacity of 1,000 to 1,250 passengers. Both kinds of vessels shouldn’t be more than 15 years old and should have similar physical attributes in terms of maximum length and draft.

A look at some of the prevailing domestic shipping rates in India suggests that Muslim pilgrims would have to pay much less for travel to Jeddah than they paid for subsidised airfares in the past. At the moment, long-haul domestic passenger shipping services are run between mainland India and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Three government-operated ships sail to Port Blair from Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam.

Ship of Haj vs Flight to Jeddah

Take the case of MV Akbar – the cheapest of the three ships that run between Chennai and Port Blair. The cheapest ticket for the bunk class in MV Akbar costs Rs 660 for the 737 nautical mile journey between the two ports. That translates into a cost of less than a rupee for every nautical mile travelled in the lowest class of travel. The distance between Mumbai and Jeddah is 2,353 nautical miles. Assuming that Muslim pilgrims are charged on similar lines for every nautical mile, they would have to pay a minimum ticket fare of just about Rs 2,100 for the four-day journey by sea between Mumbai and Jeddah. That is a fraction of what Haj pilgrims have to pay for their subsidised Air India tickets for the pilgrimage.

The cost for every nautical mile increases with the class of travel chosen. Assuming that many of the economically better off Muslims wouldn’t want to travel in bunks and prefer to travel first class with attached toilets, the fare still looks affordable. Aboard the Port Blair-bound MV Akbar, a first-class cabin with four berths and an attached toilet costs Rs 5,400 for every berth. That’s per-nautical-mile cost of around Rs 7. If a similar cost strategy is followed for Haj pilgrims, a first-class berth on the Mumbai-Jeddah route with similar facilities would cost a little above Rs 17,000. Even the highest class of ship travel, a deluxe cabin having two berths with attached toilets, would cost less than the minimum airfare.

The per-nautical-mile cost of travel in a deluxe cabin aboard MV Akbar is Rs 10. When juxtaposed on the much longer Mumbai-Jeddah route, a deluxe cabin with similar amenities would cost a bit above Rs 24,000. Even if private operators were to charge a small premium for their services, the cost of highest class of travel aboard a ship would be much cheaper than the subsidised airfare and almost equal to the cheapest flight booked on travel portals.

For the upcoming Haj, the Haj Committee of India has asked pilgrims to pay Rs 59,200 as air ticket charges from Mumbai. The air fares are much higher for embarking on any other city in India for a flight to Jeddah (See Graphic). The Haj pilgrimage begins on August 19 and ends on August 24.  

The economic rationale

Travelling by ship, which by the look of it is cheaper than air travel, would go a long way in taking care of the needs of the Muslim community. There is little doubt that a pilgrimage to Haj is a debilitating economic burden on Muslims. Many poor Muslims undertake the Haj pilgrimage to improve their social standing in the community. This comes with grave economic consequences, especially given their weak socio-economic status.

According to the latest round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report on the conditions of India’s major religious groups, Muslims were the poorest and most deprived. An average Muslim household’s monthly per capita expenditure was just Rs 980 on an average in 2012. This was way below the national average. A Muslim household barely spent Rs 55 a day on essential goods – again below the national average. While both rural and urban Muslims go to Haj spending the same amount of money on travel, the disparity between their standards of living is even more glaring.

Muslims in rural areas spent almost Rs 400 a month less than their urban counterparts. Six out of 10 Muslims in rural areas possessed less than half a hectare of land – an asset whose size often defines a household’s class and spending power in India’s villages. More than half of all Muslims across India were either illiterates or hadn’t studied beyond primary school which further dented their prospects of scaling the economic pyramid by joining the formal economy.

According to the Indian government, the minimum cost of undertaking a Haj pilgrimage in 2018 will be a little above Rs 200,000 for those availing of even the most basic facilities. The actual pilgrimage to Mecca and Mina lasts six days and some pilgrims also go to Medina to visit Prophet Mohammad’s tomb after the stoning ritual in Mina. But according to Central Haj Committee of India, Muslim pilgrims typically spend at least a month to 40 days in Saudi Arabia.

Every pilgrim pays an advance of Rs 81,000 to the Indian government – a part of which is handed over to them by the Indian High Commission in Saudi Arabia soon after they land in the country. Poorer Muslims generally choose to stay in the much cheaper Azizia zone which is almost eight kilometres from the Haram Sharif (Sacred Mosque). This is much cheaper than staying in the Green Zone, which is within a kilometre of the Sacred Mosque. Indian Muslims staying in the much cheaper Azizia zone still have to pay Rs 200,000 in addition to the advance amount.

In 2018, the cheapest airfare being charged from Indian Haj pilgrims was Rs 59,200. This fare was for those embarking on the pilgrimage from more accessible cities like Mumbai. According to the Haj Committee’s latest circular, those embarking from Srinagar would have to pay more than Rs 100,000. The airfare goes up to more than Rs 113,000 for those embarking from cities like Guwahati. In perspective, the amount of airport charges and taxes paid by a pilgrim embarking from Mumbai was more than the annual per capita expenditure of Muslims in India. Paying just a fraction of these airfares while travelling by ship would in effect also make staying in the Green Zone, which is closer to the Sacred Mosque, more affordable for those Muslims who were earlier outpriced to the Azizia zone.  

Pilgrim’s subsidy or Air India’s booty

Quite evidently, a majority of Indian Muslims would have to go to great lengths to pay for the pilgrimage. This is where the Modi government’s re-introduction of the ship journey from Mumbai to Jeddah can be a game changer for the community in helping them undertake the pilgrimage with greater frequency.

A ship named MV Akbari earlier ferried pilgrims to Jeddah from Mumbai but the service was discontinued in 1995 and never re-started. This becomes even more pertinent owing to the abolition of the Haj subsidy whose big beneficiary was not the pilgrim but India’s national airline Air India. Some Muslim commentators said that booking a flight to Jeddah a few months in advance was much cheaper than the so-called subsidised airfare being paid to Air India.

These observations seem to be true. At the time of writing of this report, the minimum airfare for a non-stop Mumbai-Jeddah flight a week before the start of Haj cost almost Rs 30,000 on a Saudi Arabia Airlines flight. There are much cheaper alternatives for flights with a single stopover.

The committee that drafted the new Haj Policy 2018-22 and submitted its recommendations to the government in October 2017 had proposed continuing the plan to reduce subsidies that were being primarily spent on air transport and air charter services of Air India. India’s national airline was being paid partly to offset its cost of flying back from Jeddah with empty flights after dropping off Haj pilgrims.

As of date, according to Air India’s financial statements, it was owed Rs 208 million in dues from the government for its Haj operations. In tune with the Indian government’s gradual subsidy reduction, Air India is also operating fewer flights and ferrying fewer pilgrims. In 2014, it operated 235 flights taking over 50,000 pilgrims to Jeddah and back. In 2016, it operated 145 flights ferrying almost 41,000 passengers.

Another Indian airline, SpiceJet, was roped in to ferry over 8,000 pilgrims to Jeddah from Gaya and Indore in 2016. The committee which presented an exhaustive report to the government also included former Air India Chairman and Managing Director Michael P Mascarenhas. Among other things, it recommended reducing the number of embarkation points to nine from the current 21 cities across India.

The committee expressed its concern on what would happen to these pilgrims in case Air India could no longer be funded from taxpayers’ money. The report noted, “the privatisation of Air India, in case it happens, will have serious consequences on Haj air operations. The Ministry of Minority Affairs, Ministry of Civil Aviation and High Commission of India have to plan how to overcome the challenges that would arise out of such an eventuality.”

The Modi government, it seems, found the answer to this challenge in a more medieval and cheaper form of transport.