Crowd Management:Have we seen the last of the Haj stampedes?

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If the Saudi government can make vaccination mandatory for pilgrims, who is preventing them from making health and safety training compulsory, too?

According to the latest Associated Press report, the number of pilgrims to have died in the crush during this year’s Haj has now risen to 1,453. This makes it the stampede with the highest death count among all previous such incidents during Haj.

An enquiry has been ordered into the crush on the junction of street 204 and 223 in Mina, and though, with CCTV footage, it can be ascertained how the event unfolded, there is little hope that this information will be forthcoming.

In the aftermath of this tragic incident, contrasting reactions have cropped up.

Pilgrims from developing countries felt that the arrangements already in place were not only sufficient but beyond what anyone else could offer. Those from the developed world, meanwhile, who had seen crowd management in action, felt otherwise.

Amidst the varied opinions, some lame and other out rightly absurd, there were people who pointed out that the extensive coverage of the tragic incident was a conspiracy to put people off from the once in a lifetime experience. Some believed that criticism against the Saudis should be dismissed as it was nothing but propaganda from the opposing sect.

The Haj Research Centre, founded in 1975, was specifically set up to make recommendations for the management of the swelling number of pilgrims consented by the Saudi government. Although funded by the government itself, the recommendations made by this institute go largely ignored.

As a result, there is calamity after calamity, year on year with little signs of improvement.

These incidents only get noticed when the number of causality reaches three figures. The ongoing development, which seeks to make room for more pilgrims, has outpaced the health and safety measures that were never a priority to begin with.

There are some areas where Saudi authorities do get it right. For instance, a vaccine directive is updated every year and the authorities do regulate the numbers of pilgrims based on local and temporal factors. This year, because of the construction around the grand mosque, the number of pilgrims allowed were lower than average.

Similarly, last year, for the prevention of the MERS virus spread, the vulnerable groups (old and frail) were denied visas for the journey.

However, there is always room for improvement and there are areas where a lot more could be done. For example, there is a total lack of belief within the Saudi authorities on training programs for the pilgrims that guide on health and safety aspects of the journey.

The Saudi ranks seem to be of the mind that most pilgrims are illiterate and are, therefore incapable of any training. Ironically, the lack of training within the organising staff is also reflected in their handling of complex situations.

If the Saudi government can make vaccination mandatory for pilgrims, who is preventing them from making health and safety training compulsory, too?

After all, the pilgrims do train themselves on the religious aspects of the journey.

To put things in perspective, let us examine a disaster and the reaction to it elsewhere in the world. In 1987, during what is now known as the ‘Hillsborough disaster’, a football match played in the UK saw 96 people die in a crush that ensued after opening the exit gate. The gate was opened to ease the build-up of the crowd outside the stadium.

An enquiry was immediately launched. Within a year of the publication of the investigation report, all stadia in the UK changed their standing terraces to seated pavilions.

This measure came at a huge price (as seating people meant less capacity and consequently less income for the clubs), but the health and safety requirements of the public were held supreme.

As a result, in over thousands of matches that have followed, the Hillsborough disaster of 1987 has never been repeated.

Sceptics will point out that a football crowd cannot be compared to a Haj crowd, which is far bigger. But it is, nonetheless, a relevant microcosm, because of almost the same crowd density and emotionally charged atmosphere.

On the other hand, there is the Mina incident of 1997, where hundreds were burnt to death only for fireproof tents to be erected six years later in 2003.

Crowd management and crowd psychology have evolved into disciplines in their own right. Research in these areas provide actionable information, for example, how pedestrian footbridges are far less effective compared to pedestrian subways / foot tunnels. The reason is simple: People find it easy (psychologically) to step down a path than go up a bridge, despite the net elevation displacement being zero in both cases.

There must be hundreds of studies – many of them specifically on crowd management under scorching heat – which could prove invaluable in planning organising the pilgrimage in the future.

It is fair to say that the current Haj management has been reactive more than proactive. The incumbent management philosophy is to throw money at problems, which is obviously not the solution.

Normally, the Saudi authorities cite their large number of volunteers, stewards, police force and paramedic staff, along with the huge fleets of support vehicles, in defense of their performance. But good management needs deliberation, careful planning, attention to detail, due diligence and a level of foresight that seems absent in the current scheme of things.

It is also important to counter the attitude that accidents are part of “fate” and questioning the “act of God” is akin to challenging the almighty. While belief in fate provides a comforting closure, particularly after tragic incidents, it is the belief in some control over your fate which distinguishes the inevitable from the avoidable.

Let us hope that we have now seen the last of the stampedes at Haj.

Haroon Junaidi has a doctorate in Renewable Energy. He is currently working as a Mechanical Engineer in Scotland.

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