For thousands of Bangladeshi Hajj aspirants every year, the entire process, starting from registration to obtaining a visa to getting on the plane, turns out to be a nightmare. One would think paying the exorbitant fees—which somehow keep increasing every year—and fulfilling all the usual requirements would suffice. But instead Hajj pilgrims in Bangladesh are met with various irregularities and inconveniences at every step, owing largely to mismanagement and inefficiency of both private and government operators.
Almost every year, the fate of thousands of Hajj pilgrims remains uncertain until the eleventh hour—for more reason than one. Inadequate number of flights, changed flight schedules, sudden increase in fees, obstacles in visa-related procedures—the list goes on. All the while, Hajj pilgrims, many of whom make the exhausting journey from far-flung districts to the city, endure physical and emotional suffering at camps and airports in addition to facing the risk of having their hard-earned savings go down the drain.
This year, like last year, a total of 1,27,198 Bangladeshi pilgrims are set to perform Hajj, as per the quota under the agreement signed between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. It seems that Saudi Arabia has refused to increase the said quota for which Bangladesh was supposed to put forward a proposal ahead of the agreement being signed in January this year. According to the religious affairs ministry secretary in-charge, the quota should actually be 1,48,000 if calculated according to Bangladesh's Muslim population in line with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) rules adopted in 1987. So, on the one hand, you have a fixed quota for Bangladeshi pilgrims which Saudi authorities will not budge on, while on the other hand, Hajj pilgrimage keeps getting costlier—making it doubly challenging for Bangladeshi Hajj aspirants many of whom can barely afford to undertake the pilgrimage at the current prices as it is.
Last year, the cost for each pilgrim went up by Tk 14,000 to Tk 21,000 while this year it will go further up by Tk 12,000 to Tk 16,000. But even these drastic fee hikes aren't doing anything to remedy the management process which is a bureaucratic nightmare. Corruption and allegations of all sorts of gross irregularities have been going on for a long time. The religious affairs ministry recently fined 52 Hajj agents Tk 9 crore over irregularities carried out last year, cancelled the licence of 59 and suspended the licence of 17. Almost a quarter of all Hajj tour operators—142 out of 635—were found to be involved in anomalies in 2017 which include delays in visa processing and issuing air tickets, charging extra fees, failure to provide pilgrims with food and accommodation, etc.
But the worst sufferers are those who end up being cheated of every penny by Hajj operators and never even make it to the pilgrimage. The existing management system is so severely lacking in transparency that it is hardly surprising that fraudulent Hajj agencies have been literally banking on people's desperation and swindling them out of their money with ease. Both in 2016 and 2017, many Hajj aspirants fell victim to the scams of some of these agencies which failed to send pilgrims to Saudi Arabia even after having taken large amounts of cash payment.
While the religious affairs ministry has reportedly held numerous Hajj tour operators responsible for their misdeeds, it is hardly reassuring because it does not address the root causes of the problems that are being faced by Hajj pilgrims regularly. The risk of fraudulence, for instance, by Hajj operators will not go away simply by the imposition of fines or cancellation of licences. It is directly linked to the mode of payment of Hajjis to Hajj agencies. Most of the time, Hajj pilgrims, especially those from rural areas with very little financial literacy, opt for direct cash payment to private Hajj agencies leaving no paper trail behind and making it easier for Hajj agents to cheat them.
One of the issues is that private Hajj agencies in Bangladesh have much more of a stake than they probably should unlike in countries like neighbouring India where they form a miniscule portion of the whole process. In India, Hajj pilgrims have the option of two streams: the Hajj Committee of India (HCoI) and private tour operators (PTOs). Last year, out of 1,70,025 pilgrims, 1,25,025 went under the government-managed HCoI and 45,000 through PTOs—in stark contrast to the scenario in Bangladesh where only 10,000 (a meagre eight percent) went through government management in 2017. Not only that, government packages are apparently cheaper than private ones in India unlike in Bangladesh where government packages are double the minimum cost of a private Hajj package. They also have a fast, online processing mechanism (including online payment option for pilgrims) and selected pick-up points for Hajjis. We clearly have much to learn from India's Hajj management process which is very closely monitored by the Indian government. Our laissez-faire approach towards Hajj management, giving private operators with dubious intentions a free hand, is not working.
Reforming the existing Hajj process, despite all its drawbacks, is perhaps the last thing on the agenda for our religious affairs ministry, since the ministry itself seems to have been involved in activities that smack of nepotism. Last year, it spent Tk 10.15 crore of taxpayers' money to send 318, mostly financially solvent, people including lawmakers and government officials. Relatives and personal staffers of the religious affairs minister also made the cut, in case anyone was wondering.
Overhauling the Hajj process isn't going to be easy. It would require, among other things, bringing in all the Hajj agencies under a centralised system and digitising the process which would no doubt drastically reduce the incidence of fraudulence by shady private Hajj operators and brokers. Fines and suspension of licences aren't going to bring any meaningful change. A monitoring committee consisting of Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (HAAB), the religious affairs ministry and other groups representing the interests of the public would also be needed for purposes of checks and balances. So the government needs to start thinking big and fast. When the impetus for digitalisation of the country is loud and clear, such outdated modes of business no longer make sense. We are one of the major countries in terms of Hajj pilgrims yet our Hajj process is one of the worst.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.