The Central government’s proposal to ferry Haj pilgrims between Mumbai and Jeddah calls for a serious rethink, notwithstanding its laudable intention of providing an opportunity for poorer pilgrims to travel to Mecca. On the face of it, the move looks ill-conceived and appears to be an exercise in anachronism.
The current arrangement for the Haj pilgrimage by the Haj Committee of India has worked well ever since sea voyages were phased out in 1995 and the Haj administration was decentralised. Flights from 21 cities in India take pilgrims to Jeddah in 6-8 hours. Pilgrims have to spend a maximum of six days in and around Mecca to carry out the core rituals of the Haj. Most pilgrims also stay for 10 days in Medina, the Prophet’s adopted city. The Haj Committee schedule stretches across 40 days.
It is doubtful whether any sea voyage would take less than eight days for an average pilgrim between Mumbai and Jeddah. The most modern vessels travel at a speed of 20 nautical miles an hour. Given this speed, the journey between Mumbai and Jeddah (2,400 nautical miles) would require at least five days if weather conditions are favourable, which is not always the case. Normally, a passenger vessel carries 4,000-5,000 people. This means pilgrims at both ends will require a day to complete the formalities of customs and immigration. Add to this a day’s journey by train to Mumbai from the pilgrim’s point of origin.
In contrast to flight arrangements, the sea route entails centralisation of Haj arrangements. It presupposes that all pilgrims will be clustered in Mumbai for embarkation. Flights from provincial capitals had drastically eased the rigours of passage to the holy cities. Haj houses had come up in State capitals and were taking care of regional clusters.
Besides being anachronistic, sea voyages were discarded as they were misused by cartels in Mumbai. Children were ferried from States such as West Bengal, Bihar and Assam for organised begging in holy places. Some of them were passed on to unscrupulous elements to be used in camel races. There were also instances of poor women being lured by persons posing as their mehram (blood relative or guardian for the journey) who instead trapped them in domestic servitude work in West Asia. The restoration of ships would reopen the floodgates for misuse yet again.
The authorities need to assess the cumbersome formalities involved in reintroducing sea voyages. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Haj Boards mobilise savings, invest them in profitable ventures, constantly add dividends to deposits, and charter flights through open bidding. Such measures could be thought of as alternatives to sea travel, which has outlived its utility.
The writer is a journalist based in Bengaluru