Last year, thousands of hajj pilgrims had suffered for the delay in getting valid visas from the Saudi authorities. Complexities over payment of additional fees for repeat pilgrims and services rendered by the Saudi 'moallems' were largely responsible for the sufferings.
This year, there were no such hassles. Yet some pilgrims had faced problems due to delay in procuring visas by their hajj agents.
Allegations are usually aplenty about the maltreatment of hajj pilgrims at the hands of agencies while the latter stay in the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. Newspapers do usually carry reports on the issue almost every year. But this year, no such report was seen in the media.
But the absence of media reports does not mean that things were alright as far as the handling of Bangladesh hajj pilgrims by the private hajj agencies is concerned.
This scribe and some others had been the victims of gross irregularities committed by a hajj agency and its 'dalals' (middlemen).
Each of the pilgrims deposited the government-fixed fees---some even paid higher amounts seeking improved services---with the hajj agency in question.
The dalals of the hajj agency in question handed over the pilgrims the government-issued identity cards at the hajj camp at Asakona where they were preparing to board the Jeddah-bound Biman flight on July 29 last. But the pilgrims were surprised to see the name of another agency as their sponsor on the pilgrim ID cards. The pilgrims concerned did not know anything about the second agency. However, they did neither have time nor scope to seek an answer from the first agency.
During this scribe's one month stay in Makkah and Medina along with other pilgrims, the dalals came to his hotels only three to four occasions. The standard of two hotels in Makkah and Medina was satisfactory. But the condition of the hotel arranged during the last leg of the pilgrimage was highly unsatisfactory. The supply of food was irregular and quality of the same was poor. On many occasions, pilgrims had to buy their own food. The pilgrims in question had to perform their hajj without any guidance though the agency people had promised to stay with the pilgrims all the time. The pilgrims concerned had to pass a very uncertain time as the agency dalals did not respond to their phone calls for a couple of weeks during their stay in Makkah.
A good number of Bangladeshi pilgrims had narrated to this scribe the stories of their sufferings at the hands of hajj agencies.
A few issues that this scribe could locate during his interactions with the pilgrims could be taken into cognizance by the ministry of religious affairs to help reduce the sufferings of pilgrims in the future.
The hajj agencies, in most cases, do not recruit pilgrims on their own and they are fully depended on dalals for the purpose. Madrasha teachers or imams and muazzins of a few mosques do usually act as dalals. The latter generally target elderly illiterate people in rural areas and, on occasions, make deals at prices below the government-fixed packages. The agencies keep certain part of the amount received from would-be hajjis and hand over the rest to dalals to meet all the expenses of pilgrims. The dalals again keep their part of the commission and spend the rest on pilgrims.
Madrasha teachers remain absent from their workplaces to engage themselves in seasonal business.
The government should stop involvement of Madrasha teachers in hajj business and ask the hajj agencies to engage their own men. Moreover, the ministry of religious affairs should stop inter-agency transfer of hajj pilgrims since such transfer is illegal.
A good number of travel agencies involved with hajj business are also involved in manpower recruitment. The attitude of these agencies as far as manpower recruitment is concerned is not beyond question. They, in many cases, can hardly avoid irregularities while dealing with hajj pilgrims.
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