In 2020 and 2021, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) did not allow outside visitors to perform Hajj because of the Covid-19 pandemic. With the pandemic waning in 2022, it relaxed some restrictions and allowed a limited number of people from across the world to perform Hajj, which is the fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam.
This year, the pilgrimage is open and, as usual and the KSA government has fixed pilgrim quotas for the countries having large Muslim populations. Last year, Bangladesh had a quota of 60,000 pilgrims. This year, it is 127,198.
If not for Covid-19 restrictions, the high cost of the Hajj package is restraining many Bangladeshis from taking part in Hajj this year. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has extended the deadline for Hajj registration three times until now, but the response has been poor. Nearly half of the allotted quota of pilgrims for Bangladesh has remained vacant until now.
The government has fixed the cost of the Hajj package at around Tk 700,000 while India and Pakistan have fixed the cost at half of that amount. Each Bangladeshi pilgrim will have to spend more than Tk 800,000, if the costs of the sacrificial animal, food etc., are included.
India, which has a Hajj pilgrim quota larger than Bangladesh, is providing a subsidy of INR100,000 for each Haji. Thus, an Indian Muslim will be able to perform Hajj at a cost of INR 3.1 lakh as against INR 3.99 lakh during 2018-2022.
Pakistan has fixed the Hajj package cost at Pak Rupee 1.0 million. When converted to Taka, the amount comes to around Tk 400,000.
Airfare turns out to be one of the major factors, which has pushed up the cost of the Hajj package. Bangladesh Biman has increased the airfare to Tk198,000, an increase of Tk 60,000 this year over that of the last year.
The reason for the airfare hike is that the hajj flights are not open to other carriers. Biman and Saudi Arabian Airlines are the two authorized carriers of pilgrims.
The reasons behind doubling the cost of the Hajj package remain unexplained. Indeed, the authorities concerned should have taken into consideration the economic hardship that the low- and middle-income people, who constitute most of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, are now enduring. Usually, these people perform Hajj with their lifelong savings. The abnormal hike in the cost of the Hajj package this year has dashed their hope.
While fixing the cost of the Hajj package, the Religious Affairs Ministry, as a matter of routine, must have held discussions with the authorized Hajj agents. It is not known whether the hike in cost was the outcome of any such parley.
Whatever may be the reason, the private Hajj agents will also be losers since many would skip their planned pilgrimage this year because of the cost escalation. It is not unlikely that the dishonest section of Hajj operators tries to compensate for their losses by reducing their promised services to would-be Hajis. It would be really unfortunate if they are allowed to indulge in such an evil practice. Every year, allegations of maltreatment of Hajis by some Hajj agents come to the fore. The ministry concerned tries to address some while many more go unheard. Hopefully, the ministry would be extra watchful in matters of maltreatment by private Hajj agents.
Besides, the government should keep the Hajj flights open to all carriers that have permission to carry passengers from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia. Pilgrims should not suffer, financially, to keep the Biman afloat. If passengers may choose their carriers while flying to any destination, why should it not apply with Hajj pilgrims?