Air trip to Vaishno Devi shrine dearer as Mufti govt imposes

Jaswinder Singh Baidwan

Akhran da mureed
Staff member

The PDP-BJP government has levied service tax on Vaishno Devi pilgrims travelling to the revered cave shrine nestled in the Trikuta Hills by chopper which, said some leaders, appeared aimed at reducing the number of pilgrims to the shrine.
The decision has also exposed chinks in the ruling coalition with alliance partner, the BJP, claiming that it was not taken into confidence before the imposition of service tax on pilgrims. The party has demanded that the notification imposing service tax be revoked forthwith.
Service tax was imposed around six months ago after the state allowed the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to collect toll from highway users, including Vaishno Devi pilgrims, at Ban toll plaza. Official sources told The Tribune that the Finance Department, headed by Haseeb Drabu of the PDP, issued a notification on September 2, asking the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) to impose 12.5 per cent service tax on the pilgrims travelling by the helicopter to and fro from Katra to Sanjhi Chhat.
“Following the notification, the shrine board was forced to implement the decision on September 3. Two air service providers—Global Vectra and Himalayan Heli—increased the prices of air tickets, thereby putting additional burden on pilgrims.
The move would have a cascading effect on the economy of the region as it will reduce the number of pilgrims visiting the shrine,” sources said.
Substantiating their claims, sources said most of the families book air tickets for the aged, infirm and children, who can’t trek 26-km distance to and fro for paying obeisance to goddess Vaishno Devi, and the hike in prices of air tickets would discourage these families from undertaking the pilgrimage.
“The number of Vaishno Devi pilgrims has come down drastically over the past three years. In 2012, more than 10 million pilgrims paid obeisance at the shrine. The number came down to 9.3 millions in 2013 and 7.8 millions in 2014. This is affecting the overall economy of the region,” sources said.
With the imposition of service tax, the pilgrims will now have to shell out Rs 1,170, instead of Rs 1,039, for the one-way journey, while it will cost Rs 2,340 in place of Rs 2,078 for the two-way journey.
“I was not taken into confidence before the imposition of service tax. It is an embarrassing situation for us. I have already taken up the matter with the party high command and will write a note to the Chief Minister and the Finance Minister against the arbitrary decision,” Pawan Gupta, Minister of State for Finance, associated MLA of the BJP, told The Tribune.
The fuming MoS questioned, “What the ruling dispensation has done to boost pilgrimage and provide facilities to the pilgrims? It should take effective measures to check tax evasion by defaulters and make defunct public sector undertakings (PSUs) functional, rather than initiating anti-pilgrim measures.”
Earlier, the BJP state chief spokesman Sunil Sethi termed the move as a “bad decision” and said it should be taken back immediately. “The decision has hurt sentiments of the Hindu community, particularly the Vaishno Devi pilgrims. The Finance Ministry’s move is very unfortunate and likely to affect the pilgrimage,” he said.