A full bench of the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Wednesday stayed Hajj applications including the processing of forms and granting of quotas to tour operators under the Hajj Policy 2011.
The bench headed by Chief Justice Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry and including Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed and Justice Umar Ata Bandial issued the stay orders and adjourned till June 6 after hearing the arguments of Advocate Ahmed Awais and Advocate Tipu Salman Makhdoom, who represent various tour operators.
The petitioners have challenged the process by which the Ministry of Religious Affairs awards contracts to private tour operators to transport and accommodate Pakistani pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, saying that the process is riddled with corruption. They submitted that for the last eight years, the ministry had been granting quotas to tour operators in exchange for bribes.
The chief justice asked Deputy Attorney General Ilyas Kashmiri, representing the ministry, the terms and conditions for the awarding of quotas. He responded that the government had a contract with the Saudi government according to which 650 tour operators were given quotas this year. He said another 96 tour operators had been granted quotas after they moved the Supreme Court.
Justice Saeed asked Kashmiri whether the Saudi government specified which tour operators to award quotas to, and who these were. Muhammad Azhar Siddique, counsel for petitioner Travel Shop Limited, said the Saudi government did not specify any Hajj operators.
Justice Bandial asked the deputy attorney general whether the Hajj Policy 2011 included a transparent formula for the selection of tour operators. Kashmiri responded that the deputy director of Hajj affairs processed complaints against Hajj operators and he had received 238 complaints. He said the same tour operators were given quotas as the year before.
The bench observed that there should be clear criteria for the granting of quotas. It was wrong to simply grant quotas to the same operators as the year before.
Justice Saeed said that in 2006, the same court had exposed government corruption in the Hajj process, but had been unable to stop it before the holy pilgrimage took place as the prospective pilgrims were sitting at the airport when the court reached its decision. He said the court knew how Pakistani pilgrims had suffered in Saudi Arabia last year.
The petitioners’ lawyers submitted that their clients had been moving from pillar to post for their rights but the Ministry of Religious Affairs was not giving them quotas. They said the ministry had not made public the details of the Hajj Policy 2011. Their clients had repeatedly written to the ministry seeking a copy of the policy, but been ignored. They said that the LHC had already declared that the provision of quotas could not violate basic rights.
They said this year 180,000 Pakistanis would go to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, half of them through the Pakistan government and the rest through 607 tour operators.
They submitted that the paid-up capital requirement for new operators had been raised from Rs5 million to Rs20 million, and each new operator had to pay Rs0.5 million to the Hajj Fund.
They said that new operators were not being given quotas for this year’s Hajj, which was in violation of Articles 25, 18 and 4 of the Constitution.
The petitioners asked the court to declare the Hajj Policy 2011 illegal to the extent of private tour operators and to order the government to cancel all allotments so far and issue fresh quotas on merit.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2011.
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