The Decline of Hajj Pilgrims in Rajasthan: Price Increase vs. Shifting Priorities

This year, despite Rajasthan being allocated a substantial quota of 5036 pilgrims, only 4208 individuals registered by the deadline. The culmination of rising expenses, exacerbated by the economic downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside shifting societal priorities, has led to a noticeable decline in Hajj participants from the region.
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Representational ImageCredit- Muslim Mirror

Udaipur- In recent times, the journey of Hajj, one of the most sacred pillars of Islam, has become more difficult for many. Rising costs and economic challenges have made it harder for people to participate.

A total quota of 1,75,025 pilgrims from India has been finalised for Haj 2024 with 1,40,020 seats being reserved for pilgrims to proceed through Haj Committee of India.

This year, despite Rajasthan being given a large number of spots for pilgrims, fewer people have applied. Against the substantial quota of 5036 pilgrims, only 4208 individuals registered by the deadline in Rajasthan. This change has led to new discussions about why fewer people are going on Hajj and what other options they might choose instead.

Hajj stands as one of the fundamental pillars of Islam, obligating Muslims to undertake the sacred journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, provided they possess the physical and financial means to do so.

Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the sacred sites, allocates quotas to each country based on its Muslim population. Among these allocations, Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation with over 270 million adherents, receives the largest quota.

The rise in the Hajj pilgrimage cost is largely attributed to initiatives by the Saudi Arabian government aimed at bolstering its economy. One significant measure includes the introduction of a 15 percent Value Added Tax (VAT), which applies to various goods and services, including those related to the Hajj pilgrimage. Additionally, the government imposes a 5 percent tax on hotel accommodations, further contributing to the overall increase in expenses for pilgrims.

The soaring costs associated with the Hajj pilgrimage are increasingly rendering this sacred journey unattainable for many devout Muslims. This year, despite Rajasthan being allocated a substantial quota of 5036 pilgrims, only 4208 individuals registered by the deadline. The culmination of rising expenses, exacerbated by the economic downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside shifting societal priorities, has led to a noticeable decline in Hajj participants from the region.

For the first time in 18 years, all available slots were filled without resorting to a lottery system. However, despite this, 828 seats remain vacant, underscoring the stark departure from previous years where demand consistently outstripped capacity.

In 2023, 6150 applications were received for a quota of 4749 slots, while in 2022, 2499 applications vied for 2072 available spaces. The peak of demand was observed in 2019 when a staggering 10750 applications were submitted for just 5264 slots. However, this year seats remained vacant as lower number of applications were received against the available quota. Surprisingly, even from Udaipur district alone, all the 100 individuals who applied, were selected without any lottery process followed.

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court had mandated the gradual phasing out of the subsidy over a 10-year period, with the government finally abolishing it in 2022.

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The Mooknayak spoke to Zaheeruddin Sakka, a Haj trainer and coordinator, regarding the declining participation in Hajj pilgrimage. He pointed to the primary reason being the significant increase in prices. Sakka highlighted that the government package for Hajj now costs Rs. 4.5 lakh per person, a considerable jump from the previous cost of around Rs. 3 lakh. He emphasized that typically, two individuals from a family undertake the pilgrimage, resulting in a substantial total expenditure of Rs. 9 lakh compared to the previous Rs. 6 lakh. This sharp rise in cost has deterred many potential pilgrims from undertaking the journey.

Furthermore, Sakka noted the emerging trend of choosing Umrah as a more affordable alternative in light of the soaring prices of Hajj. As a private tour operator himself, Sakka shared insights into the growing popularity of Umrah trips, with thousands of people from Udaipur opting for it annually. He revealed that he organizes two batches for Umrah every month, accommodating 35 people each, indicating a significant preference for this alternative pilgrimage.

The appeal of Umrah lies in its comparatively lower cost, attributed to the shorter duration of stay required and consequently reduced expenditure. While Hajj would cost approximately Rs. 5 lakh per person this year, Umrah offers a more budget-friendly option, with an estimated cost of around Rs. 1.5 lakh per head. This stark contrast in expenses makes Umrah a more accessible choice for many aspiring pilgrims facing financial constraints amidst the rising costs associated with Hajj pilgrimage.

Maqbool Ahmed, a retired lab technician from RNT Medical College, has embarked on the Hajj pilgrimage thrice in his lifetime. Sharing his experiences, he revealed that he undertook the journey twice through the government quota and once privately. Reflecting on his last pilgrimage in 2018, Maqbool emphasized a notable difference between government and private arrangements.

According to him, private operators offer superior services compared to the facilities provided under the government quota. This perceived discrepancy in service quality has influenced many individuals to opt for private travel arrangements instead of relying on government quotas.

Maqbool concurs that affordability is a crucial factor, acknowledging that financing the Hajj pilgrimage is no small feat. He noted a common sentiment among aspirants, where individuals rationalize their inability to undertake Hajj by opting for Umrah instead. "If one cannot afford Hajj, they decide to perform Umrah instead, thinking that at least they will fulfill the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage," Maqbool expressed.

He highlighted the allure of Umrah, emphasizing its flexibility compared to the Hajj, which is restricted to specific dates each year. Unlike Hajj, which occurs once annually, Umrah can be undertaken at any time throughout the year. This flexibility makes Umrah a more accessible option for those unable to commit to the constraints of the Hajj pilgrimage schedule.

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Shifting Priorities: A Secular Perspective

Senior journalist Rafeeq Pathan offers a nuanced and secular perspective on the declining participation in pilgrimages. Having undertaken the pilgrimage himself in 2016, Pathan observes a significant shift in priorities, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Pathan, the economic repercussions of the pandemic, such as job losses and financial instability, have profoundly impacted individuals' ability to afford the 40-day pilgrimage. The widespread losses of livelihood have left many families struggling to meet their basic needs, let alone finance a pilgrimage that demands substantial financial resources.

Furthermore, Pathan highlights the changing dynamics within families, where there is a growing emphasis on education and securing a better future for the younger generation. With increased awareness and opportunities for higher education, more children, including girls, are pursuing academic pursuits. Parents, recognizing the potential for a brighter future through education, are prioritizing investing in their children's education over traditional religious pilgrimages.

Pathan proposes a pragmatic approach, suggesting that by investing in their children's education, parents are laying the foundation for a future where their offspring may eventually fulfill the obligation of Hajj and even accompany them on the pilgrimage. This forward-thinking perspective indicates the evolving priorities within society, where education and socioeconomic advancement take precedence over traditional religious practices in the face of changing circumstances.

However, a senior Muslim IAS officer, speaking anonymously, offers a thought-provoking perspective, challenging the notion that education or awareness necessarily hinder religious practices in India. The officer draws attention to a common phenomenon observed across religious communities, highlighting how individuals often prioritize their faith despite economic constraints. Using the example of donating even a small sum like 10 rupees at a temple, the officer suggests that the desire to fulfill religious duties transcends financial limitations, and asserts that the same holds true for Muslims.

According to the officer, Islam mandates three conditions for undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage: physical, mental, and financial fitness. While acknowledging the unwavering commitment of Muslims to their religious obligations, the officer candidly acknowledges that economic challenges may indeed pose a significant barrier to Hajj participation.

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