As Hajj pilgrims travel home this week, many of them will be returning with bitter tales of the substandard facilities they were provided, despite having paid Rs238,000 per head for the Pakistan government package and up to double that for a private package. For the average family, such expenses represent years, if not a lifetime, of planning and saving. Yet this year thousands of Pakistani Hajjis were left stranded in Mina without air-conditioned tents, water, toilets or food. Left with the prospect of sleeping on pavements, hundreds protested on the roads, forcing Saudi authorities to take notice of their plight.
The minister for religious affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, seems obstinate in the face of a barrage of complaints against his ministry, detailing chronic corruption and gross negligence. Last month a Saudi prince, Khalid bin Bandar, wrote to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, apparently moved by the open abandon with which Pakistani pilgrims are being fleeced by their own government. Yet Mr Kazmi’s response was to question the authenticity of the letter rather than to investigate the serious allegations within it — allegations which have been made repeatedly by such different quarters and with such frequency that the ministry’s protestations can be termed nothing but disingenuous.
The prince stated that the ministry had purchased accommodation at the rate of SR3400 in areas over 3-5 kilometres away from the Kaaba. This is in breach of the ministry’s own guidelines which state that accommodation should be no more than two kilometres away. Further, the average price of accommodation at such distance is only 1,500 Saudi riyals (a Rs46,000 overcharge per pilgrim). The prince further alleges that he was willing to provide cheaper accommodation closer to the Kaaba but that his offer was turned down by ministry officials.
Minister Kazmi’s ‘I-will-deny-it until-you-prove-it’ attitude is simply brazen. The prince’s allegations carry the credibility of a foreign dignitary and the authenticity of an official-well versed with the facts on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the prince’s facts are corroborated by the August 2010 report of the National Assembly’s Parliamentary Committee on Religious Affairs which travelled to Saudi Arabia to review Hajj accommodation and facilities organised by the ministry. The report was a damning indictment revealing that Pakistan’s pilgrims were at the mercy of a man accused of massive corruption, whose name had been on the Exit Control List. They found that pilgrims were being overcharged on accommodation and this was amounting to embezzlement of a billion rupees. Only after these allegations were publicised by leading television anchors was the director-general of Hajj recalled by the ministry, but he was neither suspended nor was a probe conducted to ascertain the allegations. The FIA has subsequently arrested the director-general on corruption charges relating to the above.
Not only are pilgrims travelling on the government package being fleeced, the ministry is also accused of colluding with unscrupulous private tour operators who charge extortionate amounts and deliver substandard services to families who are willing to pay more for private packages in the hope of having better facilities. In 2009, four independent complaints were filed against one operator relating to the December 2008 Hajj where families were charged Rs500,000-700,000 per head for a so-called ‘platinum package’. The written complaints, addressed to the ministry, said that grossly inferior services to those promised were provided, of a quality even lower than those provided by other companies at half the price. Pilgrims described filthy communal sanitation, overcrowded and uncomfortable accommodation, the absence of food and beverages and transport which was so inadequate that pilgrims decided to hire their own transport at extra cost. One pilgrim was so upset that he reportedly punched a representative of the operator. After months of correspondence and ‘enquiry’, the ministry was satisfied with an ‘undertaking’ by the company to redeem itself in the future. The company was neither fined nor denied another quota. The families received no relief.
The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime journey of spiritual enlightenment, emotional release and physical endurance. The ministry of religious affairs is supposed to safeguard the interests of Pakistani pilgrims. Instead, widespread corruption and collusion with unscrupulous private operators have turned even this sacred journey into an excursion of unholy profit.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2010.