The unfortute stampede that resulted in the death of 717 pilgrims and injuries to over 860 others on Thursday in Mi in Saudi Arabia could well have been averted with better magement of crowds. After all, the convergence of thousands of Haj pilgrims from all over the world to Mecca and its neighbouring areas is an annual affair that has been going on for centuries. In recent years, the number of pilgrims doing the Haj has exceeded two million every year. The Haj pilgrimage at this time of the year is regarded as the largest regular human migration in the world. Thursday’s tragedy—the worst affecting Haj pilgrims in 25 years—is not the only one relating to pilgrims to Mecca and Mi. The deadliest of such accidents was the one that took place in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in a tunnel linking Mecca and Mi. Thursday’s tragedy at Mi occurred when pilgrims jostled their way to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil that marks the culmition of the pilgrimage. It is hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia, the “custodian of the two holy mosques” should have drawn widespread criticism for its failure to protect Haj pilgrims. People were still talking about the unfortute incident of a crane having toppled and crashed into the grand Mosque in Mecca less than two weeks ago, killing at least 111 people, including 11 Indians. According to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “mismagement and improper actions have caused this catastrophe.”
Much of the criticism of the Saudi Arabia government is legitimate and well deserved. To think that two stampedes, 25 years apart, should have taken a toll of 2,143 lives without the Saudi Arabia government taking visible steps to anticipate and prevent stampedes at two pilgrimage sites just a few kilometres apart, when a congregation of over two million people are expected, indicates serious lapse of administrative responsibilities on the part of the government. If considerations to the safety of human lives in such a huge annual gathering of people all over the world call for certain changes in some of the traditiol rituals, they will obviously have to be carried out. After all, a government cannot be a silent witness to symbolic performances if they constitute a hazard to the safety of huge congregations within a limited space. If the construction of rrow barricades permitting only single line movement of people is necessary, such expedients should be put in place without any further delay. And if the Saudi Arabia government is not aware of how to control such huge annual congregations, it should seek assistance from other governments that are accustomed to handling such situations. For instance, our Kumbh mela congregations are also huge and seemingly unmageable affairs. However, India has maged to conduct countless such events over the years without any major tragedies resulting from stampedes. The Saudi Arabia government would do well to seek counsel from government that have had considerable experience in handling huge crowds in similar situations. The responsibilities of the Saudi Arabia government are even greater considering that they have to handle congregations of pilgrims from all over the world every year. The symbolic stoning of the devil is the kind of activity that is very likely to result in movements that induce stampedes and may have to be modified for that reason. All said and done, the Saudi Arabia government obviously does not have the transportation and public safety infrastructure that is needed for such huge congregations that gather every year. What is indeed lamentable is that Saudi Arabia should have failed in its responsibilities to the number of intertiol pilgrims that it permits every year for the Haj pilgrimage. The only altertive to putting such infrastructure in place is to restrict the number of pilgrims that the country will permit every year and to inform the world that this is being done for the safety of pilgrims.