On 24th of September 2015 in a crush that ensued in Mina, around 1000 pilgrims lost their lives. In the wake of this tragic incident, there has been outcry from Iran over the criminal negligence by the Saudi authorities and calls for an open enquiry. There has been a statement made by the supreme ruler of Saudi Arabia to carryout a swift investigation of the incident. The question is will that investigation yield information that will be helpful in avoiding hajj tragedies in the future?
The Saudi monarch at present is aiming to increase the number of pilgrims for the Hajj in forthcoming years. While there have been huge amount of development of more lodging facilities and expansion of the great mosque, the health and safety aspects have been put on the back burner.
To prevent incidents that have the potential to claim thousands of lives a few recommendations have been made in this article.
Pilgrim making their way to hajj are directed to get their vaccines done as a mandatory requirement for obtaining the visa. The visa requirement can be extended and a health and safety course should be made compulsary. A well design course would educate the pilgrims in avoiding measures that can lead to a disaster. Some of these include not sitting or resting on routes with massive pedestrian traffic. Not using wheel chairs in exclusion zones (such as inner Mutaf areas) and wearing identification tags at all times. Even though many of the suggestions may seem common sense but the dissemination of information cannot be taken for granted. Many pilgrims do not know some basic travel customs. This is because a huge number of pilgrims make the journey for the first time to an international destination. Pilgrims however are keen to learn and it should be noted that they do educate themselves of the religious aspects of their journey.
2. Imposing Ban on Certain Practices
During Hajj, many pilgrims for their own safety perform acts that put others in jeopardy. This includes walking with elbows wrapped around the arms of other pilgrims of their respective group. This body locking method may protect one from falling but can prove fatal for any pilgrim that falls just in front of the marching group. Likewise pilgrims should be released in waves to avoid crushes when walking towards a certain destination.
3. Using Emergency Alarms
The pilgrims should be directed that in case of an alarm being sound, they should stop immediately in their tracks. If a crush ensues than an alarm can be sounded locally or centrally to stop the crush to grow. It should be noted that pilgrim movement is monitored remotely by a central control room. Hajj stewarts and other officials that are watching over the pilgrims should be given control mechanism to sound the alarms in case of emergency.
4. Efficient Information Dissemination
Many pilgrims have complained the lack of travel information available at various destinations/ Points of interest. For instance, in Jamarat, exits have not been marked clearly and many pilgrims have to ask the stewarts to guide them out. This creates a huge backlog that is entirely avoidable. Similarly gantries on several routes that display important information should be installed.
5. Improvement of Mass Transit System
Over the last decade effort has been made to improve the local mass transport system. In 2010, Mecca metro was inaugurated. This should be further expanded and not only more lines but also more services should be made operational. There is room for optimizing the current transport services but it should be ensured that any “Rebound effect” is avoided.
6. Increasing Research
There have been cases when in Mecca the affect of any new development on the overall system has not been taken into account. This has been pointed out by Professor Keith Still, who helped in redesigning the Jamarat building. According to the professor for complex systems of pedestrian flow, changes anywhere in the system can have ripple effects elsewhere. For a system that deals with 3 million people, a single change can cause severe disasters. Research in this regard must be vigrous and thorough.
7. Improving Emergency Services Accessibility
It has been noted that because of poor accessibility of the emergency services, care could not be provided in time which magnifies a disaster. Dr. Mohammad Ajmal, who served as an emergency medicine physician has criticized the infrastructure in Mina. According to him death can occur in compression asphyxia in 10 min and no facility is available in Mina to respond that quickly.
8. Devolution of Privileges
Over the last decade, the luxuries on offer for certain rich pilgrims have gone over the top. This has caused huge amount of problems for ordinary pilgrims. For example, the presence super luxury hotels are in the immediate vicinity of the Haram (Grand Mosque) is a logistical nightmare. These hotels offer huge spaces for only a few thousand pilgrims whereas millions of ordinary pilgrims are housed far away from the center. Mechansims that drive a free market economy should not be adopted in a place where one strives to seek sprituality through humbleness and austerety. Similarly the practice of having extravagant tents for the super rich in Mina should be abolished. These tent for have access to medical facilities that are surplus of their requirement while ordinary pilgrims cannot get access even in emergency situations.
Shades from scorching sun should be installed as for the foreseeable future Hajj dates will fall in hot summer months.
It is hoped that in the future, organizers heed the recommendation presented herein to minimize if not avoiding hajj tragedies altogether.