Saudi Haj management needs toning up

India Fraternity Forum grand opening on Hajj Volunteer Service

By Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood

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On 11 and 24 September 2015 two incidents occurred in the Muslim sacred Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia causing death of 935 Haj pilgrims and grievous injury to 1,257. Including these, from 1975 till date, 14 mishaps have occurred in which 4,476 devotees have died and a much larger number got injured to various degrees. Thus during the last 40 years every alternate year a man-made incident has taken place resulting in, on the average, annual death of 112 pilgrims coming from all over the world who according to Islam were the Guests of God in the holy land. This is not only a cause of pain and agony for the pilgrims and tens of thousands of their family members but also a source of embarrassment for Saudi Arabia and the world Muslim community.

Causes of tragedies

The factors responsible for these tragedies have been (a) inadequate traffic control inside the tunnel from Makkah to Mina and Arafat and on the bridge leading to Jamaraat (the triple satans), (b) lack of planning to channelize the flow of pilgrims while they stone the satans (this is known as Rami), (c) insufficient preventive measures against fire, (d) absence of modern expertise among the security personnel and (e) substandard training of staff deputed to handle vital machines at expansion sites.

Spiritual pleasure versus safety concerns

The community’s reverence toward Haj is undeterred and so is the spiritual value of getting buried in the holy precincts. In 1975 my father too peacefully expired while lying in Makkah after completing Haj and is buried in Jannat-Al-Ma’ala, the graveyard in the vicinity of the Prophet’s companions. May he and all others who have gone from this world be bestowed with high place in paradise, Amen. But more vital is to ensure that for millions of world pilgrims of different age groups with no urgent wish to die, there are in place flawless arrangements to circumambulate the Kaaba, running between the hillocks of Safa & Marwa, standing at Arafaat, overnight stay in Muzdalifa and stoning of the satans and happily go back home.

Saudi statements after tragedies

After this month’s twin tragedies the Makkah Governor followed by the Central Haj Committee Chairman Prince Khaled have constituted the investigation committees. However, even before the second committee could pull up its socks and begin working, Prince Khaled has told the Saudi tv Al-Arabiya that for the latest mishap the pilgrims themselves are responsible as they did not follow the rules. That can be said in respect of all traffic accidents anywhere in the world. In the twenty first century of ‘welfare state’ violation of traffic rules cannot be taken as sufficient to prejudge an un-investigated occurrence killing 717 persons in one go.

Saudi Interior ministry’s spokesperson Mansoor Al-Turki says that the outer limits of Mina and Mashhar are predetermined and the available space cannot be further expanded. But, what about vertical expansion on which there is no cap? Moreover, if there’s faith-mandated space crunch, the obvious concomitant is that more than the corresponding number of those who can be comfortably accommodated should not be invited even if it goes against the demands of the local economy.

Science of tower cranes

The investigation committee on crane crash has attributed the fall to the unexpectedly fast wind. The contractee Saudi Binladen company’s engineer says that the crane was affixed properly and it’s fall was an act of God. In this context it’s important to know that air is a mixture of gases with given density. With the blowing air, the gas molecules move speedily and imbibe energy. Striking a surface, the air retards but the molecular energy causes forceful pressure. Doubling of the wind speed quadruples the wind pressure; it goes further up at higher elevation.

Cranes: International Code for safe use

It is for ensuring utmost precaution in such a delicate handling and yet preempt a mishap that a Code of Practice for Safe Use of a Tower Cranes has been devised and uploaded online in USA, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia and India. But on any Saudi Arabian website this is yet to be seen. According to this Code it is mandated that on each tower crane there is affixed an Anemometer to continuously measure and report the wind speed. Also, the staff incharge of the crane is bound to be always in touch with the weather forecast centre. Wherever needed the tower crane has to be vertically tied backwards with a stable hook. Also, it is important to regularly check the anchorage and ballast of the tower crane. The special yearly permit is to be obtained in respect of each crane. The world Muslim community would like to know that in case of the fallen crane of Makkah if these requirements were not fulfilled then who was responsible for such dereliction and what punishment has been awarded to the culprits.

Invite international tenders

In the 21st century world no nation is supposed to be expert in every field. Even the USA takes pride in importing the required expertise from different parts of the world. Saudi Arabia too does that in many departments. But for managing the enormous affairs of the two holy cities it still depends upon local amateurish help while this responsibility engulfs the entire Muslim community of the world. If the same incumbents do not keep on performing the same chores year after year the system is saved of the ill effects of monotony. Conversely, in Saudi Arabia the same set of persons and families have been engaged in the same works of Haj management for a long time even, in some cases, germinating vested interests. That needs to be substituted by well planned interventions through open international tenders.

Appoint world class experts

Obviously, the expanse of the city of Makkah is scripturally confined to the believers. But, first class experts even from beyond can be invited to sit outside the periphery and yet plan, control, supervise and monitor – like the Kingdom happily does in many areas of its activity. In any case, the provision of top quality world expertise in no section of Haj management should ever be compromised.

Saudis will do well to rope in an international group of experts in different fields of Haj management – mass movement, traffic control, crowd planning & management, public relations – who should prepare a well considered annual action plan of what should be done when and by whom and meticulously act thereupon. The institutions of Mu’allim has since lost its utility and needs to be discontinued. Haj management should be entrusted to young & experienced Muslim graduates of the world’s most acclaimed universities in different fields including public administration and management; and internally they should be continuously transferred from one seat to another in order to preempt sprouting of vested interests.

Rope in most qualified, certified, experienced Muslim youth

For expansion work in the holy cities too international tenders should be invited; world’s ablest, certified and most experienced companies should be given contracts rather than circulating these among a few Saudi companies even though they don’t have that kind of updated competitive qualifications, experience and certification. For the inspection and monitoring of their work another set of similarly qualified, experienced and certified companies should be appointed. In the world there are 56 Muslim countries and even apart from these there is no dearth of Muslims that match the best in the world and they’ll surely consider such service as a spiritual boon.

Author is the President, Zakat Foundation of India [ ]