India, Saudi Arabia mull sea route for Haj pilgrims

India and Saudi Arabia are mulling over reviving the option of opening the sea route for Haj pilgrimage to cut costs and accommodate the annual rush of pilgrims.

Muslims offering prayers in Mecca.
Muslims offering prayers in Mecca. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

This emerged during the meeting between Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Saudi Arabia Ambassador in India Dr Saud Mohammed Alsati. They discussed various issues related to about 1.7 lakh pilgrims from India going for Haj this year.

Naqvi said that sending pilgrims through ships will help cut down travel expenses by nearly half as compared to air fares. The practice of ferrying Haj pilgrims between Mumbai and Jeddah by water was stopped in 1995.

IGI Airport, which suffers from the rush during the Haj Pilgrimage.
IGI Airport, which suffers from the rush during the Haj Pilgrimage. Photo courtesy: Rameshng

The minister said that another advantage with ships available these days is that they are modern and well-equipped to ferry 4,000 to 5,000 persons at a time. They can cover the 2,300-odd nautical miles one-side distance between Mumbai and Jeddah in just two-three days. Earlier, the old ships used to take 12 to 15 days to cover this distance.

After a significant increase in India’s Haj quota by the Saudi Arabia Government, a total of 1,70,025 people will go on the Haj pilgrimage this year from India out of which 1,25,025 pilgrims will go through Haj Committee of India while 45,000 people will go through private tour operators.

The minister said that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia have been further strengthened. He said that facilities of Haj pilgrims especially their safety is their top priority. Various issues such as visa process, accommodation and transport facilities for the pilgrims were discussed in the meeting.

He said that all the preparations for Haj this year has been completed before time. He also expressed thanks to the Saudi Arabia Government for increasing India’s annual Haj quota by 34,005. It is the biggest increase in the quota of Haj pilgrims from India after several years.

The minister also said that Ministry of Minority Affairs is in constant touch with Saudi Arabia Government, Haj Committee of India, Air India and other concerned agencies. A team of senior officials from the Ministry and Haj Committee of India had recently visited Saudi Arabia to take stock of various facilities.

A high level committee, constituted to frame new Haj Policy 2018, will soon submit its report. The new Haj Policy is aimed at making entire Haj process easier and transparent. Haj pilgrims’ facilities will be the focus of the new Haj policy.

New Delhi's concern over the safety of Indians topped the meeting agenda following a tragedy in 2015 in which as many as 717 pilgrims perished in stampede triggered during 'Stoning the Devil' ritual. Thirty-five among the dead were Indian pilgrims. Nearly three million people throng Mecca every year on Haj.

Saudi Arabia has increased India's annual Haj quota from 1.36 lakh to 1.70 lakh, the biggest such expansion in the last 29 years. From January this year, the Government has launched the Haj Committee of India mobile application to help pilgrims apply online.