ISLAMABAD: The government’s new Haj policy came under fire from the Supreme Court and a National Assembly standing committee on Monday for not following the directions of the court, or the recommendations of lawmakers, in the final draft that was approved by the prime minister last month.
But where the apex court gave the Ministry of Religious Affairs two days to get a special committee – constituted under an earlier court order – to approve the new Haj policy, lawmakers stormed out of the committee meeting after being told that their recommendations had not been incorporated in the policy.
A reply on the former will have to be submitted by the Religious Affairs secretary before a three-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, by Tuesday.
An appeal moved by different private Haj tour operators had asked the court to set aside the new policy, which reduced their quota from 50pc to 40pc. A 2013 judgment in the Dossani Travels Pvt Ltd case required the government to constitute a special committee – headed by the Religious Affairs secretary and consisting of nominees from the Competition Commission of Pakistan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Law, as well as the attorney general – that would frame future Haj policies.
The petitioners claimed that the ministry had the new Haj policy approved by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on April 12 and alleged that they had already communicated to Saudi Arabia their decision to reduce the quota of private tour operators to 40pc.
Expressing its surprise, the court wondered why – after successfully sending pilgrims for Haj on a 50/50 quota – was the government forced to change the quota this year.
“[The ministry] has to take decisions on sound footings,” the chief justice observed, adding that it seemed like the ministry was reluctant to face reality.
In its report, the Religious Affairs ministry claimed it had solicited views from tour operators, as well as newly-enrolled private companies before the policy was issued.
The private Haj quota was reduced, the ministry claimed, in the greater public interest so that the maximum number of people could be accommodated under the government’s own Haj scheme, which was more affordable than the packages offered by the private sector.
It also claimed that the Haj quota was allocated anew annually and varied from year to year, so the 50pc quota was not a right of the private operators as they insisted.
When the court wondered whether a superior court could interfere in the policy-making domain of the government, Advocate Abid Zuberi – counsel for the petitioners – cited a number of judgments, including the Pakistan Steel Mills case, to establish that the apex court could intervene when policies were made with mala fide intent.
He stated that last year, the government received 1,900 complaints from pilgrims who went on the public quota, whereas only 141 complaints were received about private operators.
The court also refused to issue an interim order when Deputy Attorney General Sohail Mehmood sought directions regarding the results of the Haj ballot, which the ministry had conducted on April 29.
Senior counsel Akram Sheikh, also appearing for the petitioners, cited a 2007 verdict where the Supreme Court held that rights left at the fancy of the government cannot be called fundamental rights, and asked the court to give an authoritative judgment to settle the controversy once and for all.
Members of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Religious Affairs were livid when they were informed that their recommendation for a 50/50 split between private and public operators in the Haj quota was not even included in the summary sent to the prime minister, prompting many to walk out of the meeting.
Lawmakers were also incensed to learn that, despite their recommendation that Haj expenditures not be increased this year, the policy contained an increase of Rs5,000 per person. The Religious Affairs secretary insisted that this was due to an increase in the number and quality of services being offered to pilgrims this year.
But members were not satisfied and said that the government had only reduced Rs3,000 in terms of airfare, when the drop in oil prices called for a bigger cut. This prompted State Minister Pir Aminul Hasnat to add that the cost increases were due mainly to a hike in taxes levied by Saudi Arabia.
PML-F’s Pir Bux Junejo added fuel to the fire when he recalled that a sub-committee headed by him had recommended in 2012 that the quotas of 19 private Haj operators be cancelled and fresh quotas be allocated.
“First, the ministry maintained that cancelling the quotas would hamper Haj operations. The next year, they said they had not received an official letter from us. Now, the ministry maintains that only operators against whom complaints are received will face action,” he said.
During his remarks, several members noted that there were no complaints last year because everybody was more worried about the casualties from the Mina stampede and the crane collapse in Makkah.