ISLAMABAD: The Economic Cooperation Committee (ECC) of the cabinet on Monday approved a $163 million additional foreign exchange financing requirement for the transfer of 28,679 intending pilgrims to the regular scheme from the sponsorship one.

As such, the ECC meeting, presided over by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, “decided that all received applications under regular haj scheme i.e. 72,869 shall be declared successful without balloting”, according to an official statement.

The ECC was given a rundown by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony on arrangements and modalities for the Haj Scheme-2023. It said Saudi Arabia had allocated a Haj quota of 179,210 pilgrims and the cabinet had decided on March 9 to distribute this between government and private Haj schemes at a 50:50 ratio, and 50pc quota of each scheme shall be filled through sponsorship for which Haj dues were required to be remitted in US dollars from abroad.

The sponsorship scheme of 89,605 was expected to secure $194m out of the total required $284m. Thus, the ECC and the cabinet approved last month that the finance division will provide the remaining $90m foreign exchange cover for Haj-2023.

Accordingly, applications for both regular and sponsorship schemes were invited on March 16 with the deadline of March 31. The regular scheme attracted 72,869 applications against the quota allocation for 44,190 seats. The last date for the sponsorship scheme was extended till April 7, and the religious affairs ministry expected just up to 8,000 applications against 44,190 seats.

At the time of submission of the Haj Policy-2023 to the ECC and the cabinet, it was assumed that the sponsorship scheme will be fully utilised and will secure $194m. Applicants of the sponsorship scheme are required to deposit their full Haj dues in US dollars out of which airfare and service charges are paid in Pak rupees.

In this way, the sponsorship scheme was expected to secure foreign exchange cover for the regular scheme also to a large extent.

In the changed situation, the ministries of religious affairs and finance decided that the remaining quota of the sponsorship scheme be shifted to the regular scheme and thereby all the applicants i.e. 72,869 (against 44,190 seats) be declared successful without balloting. Resultantly, 28,679 seats of the sponsorship scheme are required to be utilised through the regular scheme.

Therefore, the foreign exchange required to cover the regular scheme increased to $213m of which $50m had already been disbursed, hence the approval for $163m additional foreign exchange cover.

The meeting also noted that the unutilised government Haj quota after the diversion of 28,679 applications into the regular scheme and collection of the sponsorship scheme will be either given to the private scheme or returned to Saudi Arabia, and in both cases, it will not generate additional demand for foreign exchange, the meeting was told.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2023

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