First batch of Haj pilgrims leaves for Saudi Arabia (Lead)

New Delhi, Nov 12 (IANS) The first batch of over 1,500 Indian pilgrims Monday left for Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj, including three flights from the national capital that was seen off by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

An estimated 157,000 pilgrims would be going to perform Haj this year.

Apart from Mukherjee, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and Delhi Revenue Minister Raj Kumar Chauhan also went to the Delhi international airport to see off over 1,200 pilgrims from north India.

Three flights left Delhi with 425, 408 and 409 pilgrims respectively a little before evening. On Nov 28, the last flight will leave from Delhi.

In Hyderabad, the first batch of 300 Haj pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh left Monday.

'This year, 157,000 Indians are going on Haj and as many as 110,000 of them will avail of the government facility,' Mukherjee told reporters.

The rest 47,000 pilgrims have made their own arrangements to travel to Saudi Arabia.

'I came to convey good luck to the pilgrims. We wish them a pleasant stay and a safe return,' Dikshit told reporters.

Union Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed flagged off the Andhra Pradesh pilgrims from Haj House in Nampally in the heart of Hyderabad.

Hundreds of relatives had gathered to bid adieu to their near and dear ones.

The first batch, which left by Saudi Airlines flight from Hyderabad, includes 142 men and 158 women. Three children including a month-old baby were among the pilgrims.

According to Andhra Pradesh State Haj Committee, 6,820 pilgrims from the state would perform Haj this year through the committee.

Earlier, Ahamed said he would look into the state government's demand for increasing the quota for the state. The minister said such demands were received from many states and it was difficult to satisfy all.

The Saudi Airlines will operate daily flights from Hyderabad to Madina till Nov 22. The return schedule is from Dec 26 to Jan 5.

In Delhi, Dikshit announced that a new Haj Manzil would be constructed at Dwarka in southwest Delhi.

'The Delhi government would strive to make it a permanent asset for Haj Yatris where all necessary amenities would be made available,' the chief minister said, adding that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has agreed to allot one-acre of land for the purpose.

The central government has made arrangements for 350 flights of Air India as also the Saudi Arabian Airline to ferry the pilgrims to and from Jeddah, from where they will travel by road to Medina and Makkah.

This year, flights are being operated from 15 points in the country with Varanasi added to the list.

Air India is carrying pilgrims from Jaipur, Srinagar, Kolkata, Guwahati, Patna, Varanasi, Lucknow, Kozhikode and Nagpur.

Saudi Arabian Airline will operate from Bangalore, Hyderabad, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Ahmedabad.

An expert committee had suggested hike in fares because of the phenomenal rise in petrol prices.

Saudi Arabian Airlines, for instance, has put the return fare at somewhere above Rs.30,000 per pilgrim. But the Indian government through the Haj committees is charging only Rs.12,000 per pilgrim and paying the airlines a huge subsidy.