A Flourishing Business
Magnificent India

A Flourishing Business

Vijay Sanghvi

Captain Madhav Rane of the Air India flight from Jeddah to Mumbai handed over the command of the plane to his copilot after stabilising the cruising speed for his flight. He usually did this so that he could take a stroll inside the plane, have a closer look at his passengers and throw an assuring smile at them. At the same time his visit also kept the crew on its toes. On that flight, before the era of the global economy, he was surprised to see two passengers in very dirty attire. They did not appear to be like the other passengers returning from their visit to the Gulf. Intrigued by their appearance, he enquired with the tail end purser whether he noticed any unusual thing or whether any passenger had asked for any help on landing at Mumbai.

The purser told him that those two passengers were part of a twenty five passengers group and their managers were in the middle row. Rane walked up to the two in grimy dress and greeted them with a bright smile before asking them from where they came. Both informed him that they were from Gorakhpur. With a beaming smile, Rane shook hands with them and also informed them that he had stayed at Gorakhpur years back when he was serving the Indian Air Force. Seeing the incredulity on their faces, he identified the major landmarks to convince them of his claim. He could see his casual conversation opened them up to tell him that they were in a group of 25 poor Muslims from East UP. They were brought for Umrah before the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. After a month they were returning to India. Bade Miyan who financed the pilgrimage for the poor was in the front. They also gave his seat number in business class.

That ended the conversation. After landing at Mumbai, the pilot happened to see the entire group with their Bade Miyan in the arrival hall waiting for their luggage to come on the conveyor belt. Rane walked up to him and exchanged greetings. Bade Miyan informed him that he was engaged in charity work to take poor Muslims of his state each year for Umrah. It was a rare feat. These poor could otherwise never hope to have an opportunity to travel there.

On his second trip, Rane asked one official at the Indian embassy in Jeddah to learn of the entire modus operandi. These poor beggars were brought to Jeddah a few days before the holy month. They are located at the cheap Musafirkhana. Their passports were obtained by Bade Miyan. Getting permission for Umrah with all attendant formalities was easier. Every evening, these pilgrims waited outside the main mosques of Jeddah that were generally frequented by wealthy Saudi Arabians for the evening Namaz during the month of Ramadan. They were generous in giving alms to poor outside the Mosques before proceedings to their Iftaar their food beak after the daylong fasting for the day.Bade Miyan took the entire collection from each beggar at night.

Rane further learnt that after reaching Mumbai and the pilgrims were put in the train for their destinations in Uttar Pradesh, each one was given a sum of Rs ten thousand. It was a sum that was not only a pleasant surprise to them but it also was their inducement to maintain silence. Thanks to Bade Miyan, they are able to travel by plane, spend a month in Jeddah with free food made available. It was such rich food that they can never hope to have in India. They did not mind parting with their daily earnings in alms. They also did not realize that Bade Miyan did not spend even a rupee as expenses for them. On the contrary he made a profit of a few lakh rupees each year. But no one felt cheated. It was a clear exploitation of the situation that keeps wealthy Arabs happy to have got opportunity for charity, and the poor were happy because they could do the pilgrimage, and Bade Miyan was happy too because he was able to make a neat pile. No one is cheated or exploited except the system.

Rane could not complain since everyone was served with a rare opportunity in their life. Only a month later, he was shocked to get inside information of the flourishing business and neat pile that the tour operators were making. A custom official told him that within a few days after landing ofthese passengers, huge consignments of unaccompanied luggage of these pilgrims land at the Mumbai airport. It was mostly videos, computers and other electronics good that had then high sales value in India. Each passenger is allowed imports of these goods up to a certain value. Even if the value of goods in the unaccompanied luggage was beyond the permissible limits, the tour operators managed to get them cleared as certain custom officials were ready to oblige for consideration. There was no way of knowing whether Bade Miyan was aware of what the tour operator was doing or whether the entire operation was with his knowledge.

Rane had discovered the entire game accidently as he was curious to know why two passengers appeared ragged. Only later two managers had confided that the two had lost their dress provided to them by Bade Miyan for their public appearances outside their role of beggars at main mosques of Jeddah. There was no way of knowing whether anyone of these passengers or all were taken to Mecca. They certainly were not taken to Saudi Arabia at the time for Haj when getting accommodation in any Musafir Khana for 25 persons would be a difficult task.

Rane pondered over the entire episode but could not find any element of exploitation for illegal benefits except by the tour operator. Bade Miyan was earning from generosity of the wealthy Arabs but was sharing a part with other members who played a different role. It cannot be said that he was running a gang of beggars as so many do by forcing the runaway children to beg.

After the Indian government adopted new policy to enhance the limits of permissible imports as accompanied luggage with passengers as well as liberalized imports of white goods, and their easy availability in Indian markets brought to an end to the practice of smuggling goods by passengers who came to India.