The Saudi Arabian authorities claim that but for their intervention the number of Haj pilgrims dying would have been much higher than the 700-odd on Thursday. They say they had made all the security arrangements to avert any tragedy. In effect, they are blaming the dead for dying of their own doing. But how much could the crowd alone be responsible for the stampede that occurred at Jamarat, the place in the Mecca city which has three pillars considered to be representing the devil at which pilgrims hurl pebbles – a part of the Haj ritual that is called “stoning of the devil”? Why was crowd not controlled near Jamarat? The Saudi authorities say there was “sudden increase and overlapping in the density of pilgrims” at an intersection which triggered the stampede. Why did not they defuse the sudden increase and overlapping in the density of pilgrims?
Saudi Arabia earns a lot from the Haj. Mecca is believed to be their second great revenue earner after oil. Wags say that Saudi Arabia will still be rich even if it exhausts all its oil, thanks to Haj. The Saudi king’s official title is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” at Mecca and Medina. Not that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has not done anything for ensuring the safety of pilgrims. His government has spent billions of dollars on improving infrastructure. A number of bridges and tunnels have been built to facilitate the movement of ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims. Hundreds of security cameras have been installed in the pilgrimage area and these are monitored 24×7.
Yet, accidents have not stopped happening in the Islamic holy city. Earlier this month, a construction crane collapsed near Mecca’s Grand Mosque, killing more than 100 people. More than 400 pilgrims died in 1987; 1,400 in 1990; 270 in 1994; 350 in 1997; 180 in 1998; 35 in 2001; 250 in 2004 and 360 in 2006. Most deaths occurred when pilgrims were crushed in a crowd. In 2004 and 2006, the tragedy took place exactly the way it happened on Thursday: stampede during the “stoning of the devil” ritual. These tragedies bring out the failure of the Saudi authorities in crowd management. Apart from crowd management, infrastructure and amenity failure has also caused tragedies. In 1990, 1400 pilgrims perished during a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel linking Mecca with Mount Arafat. The stampede was caused by the great heat when a ventilation system in the tunnel broke down. The Saudi Arabian authorities need to make their infrastructure and amenities absolutely safe.
They need to consider the number of Haj pilgrims too. Over the years, the number of people going on Haj has been phenomenally increasing. According to estimates, in 1950, less than 1 lakh people went on the Haj annually. By 1970, 5 lakh pilgrims attended the event. Now more than 20 lakh people go to Mecca. The Saudi government places a limit on the number of pilgrims every year. However, they should reduce the number even more. Perhaps, economic considerations compel them not to reduce the number significantly, but they should overrule them in the interest of humanity. Because experts who have studied Haj human tragedies have found strong linkage between rising number of pilgrims and the tragedies owing to crowd density. The greater the number, the greater the risk to safety.
The ancient sites at Mecca are where Islam was founded in the seventh century. These sites were built to accommodate small numbers and not to accommodate 20 lakh pilgrims. The Saudi government has to take a call, in consultation with other countries, to reduce the number of pilgrims in order to reduce crowd density. Crowd management experts say more than 8 persons per square metre is the dangerous threshold when people lose the ability to move independently. The Saudi authorities must plan the intake so that the crowd density is below that dangerous threshold. If that is maintained, stampedes can be avoided. Besides, people could be able to help each other if they have room for movement. The Saudi authorities can also work out an arrangement with the other governments to give preferential treatment to the elderly in being listed as pilgrims. Going on Haj is considered the most sacred duty of a Muslim. There are quite a large number of Muslims, who either owing to lack of financial resources or for other reasons, decide to go on pilgrimage at an advanced age. Elderly people become the first victims of a stampede. But if the crowd density is less, their family members or other pilgrims can find space to help them in case of an accident. If the crowd is less dense, the Saudi authorities can ensure that pilgrims follow their instructions and timetables – something they say the pilgrims did not do on Thursday causing the tragedy.