Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Haj goes high-tech for Indian pilgrims

136,000 Hajis coming from India this year


Published in Arab News on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014

The Indian Haj mission has introduced several high-tech measures to facilitate the pilgrimage of 136,000 Indians coming for Haj this year.
"We will make use of every form of new-age technology, from Google Maps and smartphone applications, to Facebook, YouTube clips and text messages, to make the journey of our pilgrims as comfortable as possible," said Indian Consul General B.S. Mubarak at a press conference on Monday.
"The idea is to use every available tool and gadget to keep pilgrims in our loop of communication."
Having been the Haj consul in Jeddah from 2008 to 2011, Mubarak is fully aware of the challenges that pilgrims face.
"One of the major problems that Indian pilgrims encounter during Haj is losing their way and being unable to find their accommodation, especially in the tent city of Mina, which is where most of the rituals are conducted," he said.
An Internet-based, user-friendly smartphone application that is compatible with both Android and Apple operating systems has been launched to address this issue. Dubbed the "Indian Haji Accommodation Locator," the application has a distinct icon reflecting the colors of the Indian flag. The app can be downloaded for free via Google Play Store and iTunes.
"Once downloaded, all you have to do is click on the app's icon and enter any pilgrim's cover number or passport number and you will get comprehensive details about their accommodation, including building number, tent number or 'maktab' (office) number, plus an easy-to-follow satellite or a regular road map that will lead you to their location, whether in Makkah, Mina or Madinah," said Mubarak.
The consul general said every pilgrim coming from India is provided with a Saudi cellphone SIM card which they activate upon arrival.
"Connectivity is not a problem at all," he said. "We send short text messages to these numbers to keep our pilgrims informed about important and immediate developments."
Mubarak acknowledged that the majority of pilgrims are unaware of the new technology or even the latest gadgets.
"Not everyone has a smartphone and not every pilgrim has the wherewithal to download the application or understand its complexities," he said.
"However, there are hundreds of volunteers ready to help pilgrims, but the pilgrims themselves are not in a position to explain their exact location."
Pilgrims and volunteers often speak different Indian languages, making communication difficult.
"Any volunteer can just look at the number on the pilgrim's steel bracelet that he wears at all times and punch in those details to find out the pilgrim's exact location," he said.
"We are doing this for the first time. We may encounter issues, but my mission's mandate is to minimize the suffering of pilgrims."
Of the 136,020 pilgrims arriving in the Kingdom this year, 100,020 are coming through the Haj Committee of India, while the rest are being brought in by private tour operators, popularly known as PTOs.
The first Indian Haj flight will arrive in Madinah on Aug. 27 from Kolkata, while the first flight in Jeddah will arrive on Sept. 7 from Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
Saudi Arabian Airlines and Air India will transport pilgrims from 21 embarkation points in India, including Varanasi, Delhi, Hyderabad, Aurangabad, Mumbai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Bangalore, Bhopal, Calicut, Goa, Guwahati, Mangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Gaya, Indore, Ranchi, Jaipur and Nagpur.
More than 55,000 pilgrims will land in Madinah, while 44,810 will land at Jeddah airport's Haj Terminal.
A staggering 13,127 pilgrims are above the age of 70. "We are making extra efforts for senior citizens," said Mubarak. "We are trying to accommodate them in buildings that have easy access and are close to the Grand Mosque," he said.
Pilgrims have been divided into two categories. Those in the premium "green" category will be housed in Makkah in buildings that are within 1,500 meters of the Holy Mosque's outer courtyard. The others will be accommodated in the nearby Aziziah district. "A regular and free transport service has been provided for pilgrims in Aziziah," he said.
Saudi Arabia has reduced the Haj quota for pilgrims coming from abroad by 20 percent in view of the ongoing expansion work in the Grand Mosque. This is the second year that the quota has been slashed, and is also poised to remain reduced during next year's Haj. "However, from 2016, we expect our quota to be back to normal," Mubarak said.
Out of the 360,000 Muslims who had applied for Haj in India this year, only 136,000 could be accommodated within the quota.
"For every pilgrim who had been selected, four were rejected," he said.
Deputy Consul General Mohammed Noor Rahman Sheikh and Press Consul Irshad Ahmad also addressed the press conference.

(Courtesy: Arab News)

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