The opposition parties in the Senate rejected the 63 per cent increase in Haj expenses and tabled a calling attention notice on Friday.
Senator Mushtaq Ahmed of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) submitted the notice. He expressed disappointment over the Haj policy and reminded the government that it had claimed to transform the country into a Madina-like state.
The senator said that the entire nation was worried about the policy. He added that the government should have provided some relief to people in the Haj cost. He said that the recent increase in Haj expenditure has pushed the religious obligation out of the people's reach.
The federal cabinet on Thursday announced the Haj Policy 2019 under which the cost of performing the ritual under the government scheme has been fixed at Rs456,426 (with Qurbani), against last year’s expense of Rs280,000 per person. Now, every individual will have to pay an additional Rs176,426.
Under the Haj Policy 2018, the cost of Haj for individuals in the north of the country was Rs280,000 and for the south, it was Rs270,000. However, in the new policy, the cost of Haj for individuals in the north has been fixed at Rs456,426 (with Qurbani) and Rs436,975 (without Qurbani), while for those in the south it is Rs446,426 (with Qurbani) and Rs426, 975 (without Qurbani).
Ahmed, on Friday, termed the move a "drone attack" and said that Haj has become a target of 'tsunami'. He regretted that the government didn't seek recommendation from the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) before deciding on the matter pertaining to a religious obligation.
He said that introducing the new policy was tantamount to refraining people from performing Haj, adding that the government "should not invite ill wishes" of pilgrims.
"The government claiming to be a Madina state is refraining people from visiting Makkah and Madina," he said, claiming that the same government had announced to spend billions for restoration of cinemas.
He suggested that instead of spending billions of rupees for restoration of cinemas, the government should subsidise Haj.
PPP leader Raza Rabbani pointed out the absence of Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri in the ongoing session. He asked the treasury benches if the minister was angry. "Neither did he address the press conference on Haj policy [yesterday], nor has he responded in the Senate to the notice."
In yesterday's cabinet meeting, Qadri had reportedly walked out after his proposal for a subsidy of Rs45,000 per pilgrim was rejected by his fellow members of the federal cabinet. Sources said that Qadri was due to accompany the information minister at the press briefing.
The information minister, however, denied reports that Qadri was to be present at the presser.
Senator Shibli Faraz of the PTI told the Senate on Friday that the minister was not angry.
State Minister Ali Mohammad Khan responded to the notice, saying the government was standing by its stance of establishing a Madina-like state.
The minister clarified that 70 per cent of expenditures are made in Saudi Arabia and the government has no control over expenditures there. He further elaborated that expenses for accommodation, meals and other services have drastically been increased in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
"The government has been trying to provide some relief," he said.
Chairman Senate Sadiq Sanjarani suggested that provision of further subsidy to Haj pilgrims would be a better move.
Madinah model does not mean provision of free Haj, says religious affairs minister
Federal Minister of Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri also spoke to the media regarding the matter on Friday that "the Riyasat-i-Madinah model that the government keeps talking about is [a model that should] bring well-being to the people, the abolition of poverty, the [creation of] an educated society, development of infrastructure and the turning Pakistan into a welfare state."
"The Riyasat-i-Madinah [model] certainly does not mean sending people to Haj for free and throw the nation's subsidy at it. [It does not mean] that those on whom [the pilgrimage is] mandated upon, do it using the peoples' money."
The minister did, however, say "yes, had it [a subsidy] been given, it would have been great."
Walkout over ministers' absence
Raza Rabbani recorded his protest over the absence of ministers from the session. He said that the opposition had demanded to ensure presence of the relevant minister over the issue of Pakistan Medical and Dental Council. He accused the government of deliberately ensuring that the PMDC chairman doesn't appear before the Senate.
"[We] raised the issue of dialogue between the United States and [Afghan] Taliban but didn't receive any response," he said, adding that the Senate was being kept in the dark.
He added that Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the director general of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), held a detailed interview on Jan 27, in which it appeared that he was well aware of all details [pertaining to the dialogues].
"Will you inform us about the details after culmination of the talks?" he asked.
Later, the opposition parties staged a walkout in protest against the absence of ministers. Following the walkout, the session was adjourned as the quorum was pointed out.
On Jan 25, the Senate chairman had shared same concerns and sought a reply from Prime Minister Imran Khan over the continuous absence of PTI ministers from Senate proceedings.
While Senate proceedings were underway, the chairman had instructed the Senate Secretariat to write a letter to the premier, informing him of the ministers' absence and inquiring as to why these lawmakers had not been attending the house's proceedings.
"The ministers have made a habit of not attending the Senate session," the chairman had said, adding that his dissatisfaction at the ministers' absence should be conveyed to the premier.
Earlier today, the Senate approved budget recommendations by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance. Senator Farooq Naek presented the recommendations.