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September 13, 2017

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Haj arrangements need further improvement

Haj arrangements need further improvement

ISLAMABAD: Haj is all about hardships. If you embark on this journey, be patient. Don’t complain about the troubles you face. Rather, accept it happily. These are the pieces of advice offered to the intending pilgrims.

I didn’t receive different counselling either when departed for Haj this year through government scheme. However, these warnings left me wondering about the nature of difficulties I would come across. More so, because the prayers constituting the part of Haj didn’t involve that much hard work.

The Pakistan government made reasonably good arrangements, even if not the best. There were as many as 107,526 Pakistanis who went for Haj through government scheme in comparison with 71,800 last year. (Around 73,000 went through private tour operators.) Pakistan’s Directorate of Haj booked hotels in Medina and buildings in Makkah to accommodate Hajis.

Transport was not needed in Medina as the hotels were in the neighbourhood of Masjid-e-Nabvi. Sufficient number of buses were at the disposal of Hajis in Makkah for transportation to Baitullah as the buildings were situated at 5-6 kilometres distance.

Three-time meal was available this time compared to the two-time offered the last year when Hajis were all praise for the government. Just a few years ago, there was no meal at all on offering. Hajis had to arrange from their own pocket then. Many had to sleep under open sky in 2012 due to poor arrangements marred by corruption that landed the then religious affairs minister and DG Haj behind the bars.

Better arrangement this year notwithstanding, Hajis were not without complaints. They were mostly about the quality of food (chicken dishes were served throughout the week whereas the vegetables and lentils only once) and the lifts in the building (which, they thought, were insufficient to manage the crowd during the meal and prayer time). The government was however receptive to these complaints unlike poor service delivery system in Pakistan. Menu, the officials said, can only be improved next year as it has to finalise three months before the Haj season. Extra staff was deployed at lifts to smoothen the traffic.

Major trouble we faced was during the five days of Haj in Mina, Arafat, Muzdalifa, Jamarat and for reaching to Baitullah for Tawaf-e-Ziarat. This period is called Mushahir. Saudi government takes care of arrangement for Mushahir. Although they did their best, many hardships were nevertheless faced as ensuring smooth arrangements for millions of visitors was not an easy task.

Hajis are dealt by Maktab, a kind of contractor. There were as many as 32 Maktabs dealing with the government-scheme Pakistani Hajis. How did these Maktabs treat Hajis during Mushahir, everybody has a story of hardships to tell. Trouble started as transportation of Hajis began for Mina, the first destination for performing five-day Haj.

The buses were insufficient to pick a crowd who would scuffle with each other in a bid to grab seats. The old and sick were the biggest sufferers. Another shock awaited in Mina where the tents were overcrowded and the inhabitants found in inhumane conditions. The tent allotted to me had a space of hardly 20 persons but as many as 51 persons were allocated mattresses there. Again, it was too small to turn the side during sleep. Lack of fans left many sweating. Bundling men and women together in one tent made the matter worse especially for the females who had to walk through the males section for going to toilets as there was only one entry/exit point for each tent. Mere a thought of incident like fire breakout was horrifying.

Using a toilet or performing ablution was yet another gigantic task as there were long waiting lines. The facilities located at distance were closed as Hajis started frequenting to those places. Several Hajis who couldn’t get place in tents had to settle under the scorching sun and, in cases, close to toilets. The food served in tents was not in a good taste. Only a hungry person would eat it. Half-baked vegetable was served on Eid day.

As the journey started towards Arafat, many Hajis were found without train tickets which meant they had to wait for the buses or walk to the next destination. Out of 107,526 Pakistani Hajis of the government scheme, train tickets were issued to only 45,000 by Saudi authorities. Tents in Arafat were insufficient for catering to so many Hajis.

Yet another trouble started as journey began from Arafat to Muzdalifa. Many people lost their companions. Whoever could find wherever place spent the night; many on the footpath. Maktab, the office of contractor responsible for allocated number of Hajis, lost the track of stranded Hajis who were on their own when they had to return Mina from Muzdalifa the next morning.

There were around 100,000 Saudi security personnel deployed on Hajj duty but they were unable to help due to language barrier. They didn’t understand any language other than Arabic. Diversions were created almost after every kilometre which meant a small distance would be covered after travelling a long way. There was no sitting place around. If you take a break on the roadside, security forces would order you out from there.

A Haji who was to reach Mina from Muzadalifa had to walk through Jamarat as there was no transportation. For example, it took me five and half hours to reach Mina from Muzdalifa through Jamarat while driving the wheelchair of my mother. I was not the only exception. There were old people who even didn’t have a supporting companion.

Tawaf-e-Ziarat of Baitullah is one of three important components (Farz) of Haj. Even the shortest distance from Mina to Baitullah was eight kilometres. But one had to travel on foot as there was no transport available. Cabs and buses could be found only after moving out of Mina. They charged many times the normal fare.

A cab, for example, would take 20-25 riyals in normal days for this journey but during Haj days, the fare shot up between 200-500 riyals. Again, the cab would drop almost two-kilometre away from Baitullah as the roads ahead were sealed. The buses per passenger were charging 50 riyals for the same distance.

As I had the first-hand experience, I came to know why people complained of hardships. But they are wrong in attributing it to Haj rituals. The trouble is not God-send, it is man-made and more specifically. Saudi authorities have been organising Haj since 1932. Official Saudi figures recorded 58,584 Hajis in 1920, a number that rose to 2.3 million by 2017. However, the befitting arrangements for a ritual offered each year need to be further improved.

Organising Haj is undoubtedly a gigantic task. It is easier said than done. Saudi authorities have improved a lot when compared with the situation a century ago when performing Haj was a miracle. Pilgrims used to travel by sea route or by foot to Makkah. Bandits would rob them on the way. In cases, they were killed. The hardships faced today have no comparison with that period.

One must admit that the situation has significantly improved under the kingdom of Saud family. As many as 2.3 million people from around 200 countries were issued visas for Haj this year. Organising such a mega event is neither a joke nor can be flaw-free. Saudi authorities have facilitated Tawwaf for Hajis by making expansion in Baitullah. Same has been done in Jamarat where stampede was a frequent occurrence during the stoning of devils. Now, any such possibility is out of question.

State-of-the-art road infrastructure has been laid to facilitate pilgrims. A metro train is made operational for transporting Hajis from Mina to Arafat and back to Muzdalifa. This metro gives an impression as one is travelling in a western country. However, communication infrastructure requires further expansion given the huge influx of Hajis.

Adequate arrangements are also needed for transporting Hajis from Mina to Baitullah for Tawaf-e-Ziarat. Although Saudi authorities deploy more than 100,000 security personnel to regulate traffic, there is a need to either train them for dealing with Hajis in a delicate manner or the number of volunteers should be increased for assisting Hajis.

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