Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on Friday said the Centre is "actively considering" a plan to resume — after 22 years — the use of the Arabian Sea route to ferry Haj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and consultations with the Shipping Ministry are already on.
He said the "revolutionary and pilgrim-friendly decision" of sea travel will cut down travel expenses by nearly half compared with air fares. The use of the sea route between Mumbai and Jeddah for Haj was discontinued in 1995.
"A high-level committee, formed by the government to frame the Haj Policy 2018 as per the Supreme Court's 2012 order, is exploring the issue for sending pilgrims via the sea route to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia," the Minister of State for Minority Affairs said at a training programme at the Haj House here.
The committee will soon submit its report to the government.
At present, Haj pilgrims travel by air from 21 points across the country.
The minister said another advantage was that ships nowadays are modern and well equipped to ferry 4,000 to 5,000 persons at one go.
"They can cover the 2,300-odd nautical miles between Mumbai and Jeddah in just two-three days. Earlier, ships used to take 12 to 15 days to cover this distance," he said.
He said the new Haj policy is aimed at making the entire pilgrimage process easier and transparent. Facilities for pilgrims will be the focus of the new policy.
In 2016, as many as 99,903 pilgrims went to Jeddah for Haj through the Haj Committee of India, besides nearly 36,000 persons who went through private tour operators.
In 2017, a total of 1,70,025 persons will go for Haj from India, including 1,25,025 through the Haj Committee and 45,000 others through private operators.
This year, he said, 129,196 applications were received online.
The Ministry of Minority Affairs along with other agencies has started preparations for the biggest annual pilgrimage very early in coordination with various agencies, he added. The aim is to provide world class facilities to Haj pilgrims.
With an increase of 34,005 in India's annual Haj quota by host country Saudi Arabia, announced last year, all Indian states will benefit for this year's pilgrimage, Naqvi said.
"The decision was taken during the signing of a bilateral annual Haj agreement between the two countries at Jeddah on January 11. It is the biggest increase in the Haj quota for India after many years," the minister said.
More than 500 trainers from different states are participating in the three-day training programme that deals with various dos and don'ts to be adhered to during the pilgrimage. They are enlightened about transport, accommodation and laws in Saudi Arabia, among other things.
Officials from the Haj Committee of India, Saudi Arabia Consulate, BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation, Saudi Airlines, Air India, customs and immigration departments and doctors are involved in the endeavour.
These trainers will further train prospective pilgrims at different camps across the country.