For an annual event that attracts more than two million pilgrims from all over the world to the city of Mecca, the Haj is, by and large, well managed by the Saudi Government, the custodian of Islam's holiest site. But over the last few years, the record has been marred by avoidable accidents that have taken a heavy toll of life. This year, a hostel housing pilgrims collapsed, killing 76 people. The latest disaster, a stampede in which 362 people, including 52 Indians, were killed, was the worst since 1997. The site of the January 12 tragedy has seen six other comparable incidents since 1994. Pilgrims head towards the site on the last two days of the five-day pilgrimage, where they participate in a ritual stoning of three pillars symbolising the devil. The main problem is that the approach to the site is too narrow for the massive rush of pilgrims who must finish performing the ritual before sunset. Given this death trap, the Saudi argument that trying to restrict the number of people heading towards the bridge would only complicate matters seems plausible. Over the years, the authorities have put in place some measures to ensure a smoother and safer flow of human traffic on the bridge from where pilgrims must aim their stones at the pillars. They built emergency exits from the bridge and replaced the pillars with bigger and broader ones, enabling more people to perform the ritual at the same time.
But even the Saudi Government seems to be painfully aware that these measures are wholly inadequate. After last week's tragedy, it appears to be acting fast to implement a major redesign plan at the site of the Jamarat in Mina that was first announced in 2004. The plan is to replace the present two-level bridge at the stoning site with a nine-level one, complete with ramps, stairways, escalators, and elevators, several approaches to prevent congestion, and rail transport from Mecca. Planners estimate that when the first phase of five levels is completed around 2010, nearly half a million people will be able to perform the stoning ritual at one time. This is an intelligent plan. Some within the Islamic community have also suggested an easing of the time restriction on the stoning ritual as one of the ways of averting accidents. This sounds feasible particularly as Islam accommodates the special needs of those who want to follow religious rituals but are unable to do so on account of one contingency or another. Another suggestion is to limit the number of times a single individual can go on the pilgrimage; this restriction could reduce the numbers congregating at Mecca each year. The Saudi Government would do well to give serious thought to these proposals in its efforts to make the Haj hazard-free for pilgrims. In India, the Haj committee needs to educate pilgrims on safety measures to observe during the journey.