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Hajj: Private Companies Get the RapWritten by Ahmad Masood Nikzad
Saturday, 27 August 2011 12:44
Twenty-one of the 27 travel companies that took pilgrims to the Hajj last year have been fined a total of 350,000 USD and penalised for three years for poor services.
Sherin Agha Sakhi who heads the Hajj Committee says the "21 companies did not serve the pilgrims well, so we punished them after investigations." Meanwhile, certificates of appreciation were presented to the remaining six companies.
The complaints against the agencies, who are among Afghanistan's big business groups, range from bad apartments for the pilgrims to failure to provide clean drinking water and adequate health facilities. Moreover, the houses for pilgrims were located outside the stipulated one km radius around Haram-e-Sharif.
The complaints are all violations of articles 25 and 28 in the agreement signed by the contracted companies and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs.
The companies have been slapped with fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 USD each. In addition, their owners and managers have been banned from setting up new businesses or entering into partnerships for a year.
Private companies have protested, saying the Hajj committee did not seek their views. Haji Hasanzai Hasan Yar Mangal, head of an association that represents the tour operators, says the apartments rented were between 300 and 800 metres of Haram-e-Sharif. He has threatened the government that if the ban on transporting Hajj pilgrims to Mecca and Medina is not lifted the affected companies will not invest in the country.
Who gets to take pilgrims?
For now the Hajj committee has not intimated the six companies that received certificates of appreciation whether they will be taking pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, according to Noor Ali Tasal, deputy manager of the successful National Tourism Company.
Pilgrims who travelled with National were put up in apartments next to congregational halls - "they just had to come down from their apartments to attend prayers five times a day", he boasts.
Muhammad Hashim Zazai, head of Wahadat Tourism, claims his company ferried pilgrims from one shrine to the other for free. The expense was not passed on to the Hajjis each of whom paid 3,100 USD for the pilgrimage.
Both National and Wahadat have said they will hold public protests if their companies are not given a share of Hajj pilgrims this year.
However, the silence from the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs may indicate a change in government policy. Habib-u-Rahman Salehi, director of publication in the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, says "Our ministry has its own facilities; it does not need the help of the companies." He claims the decision to give private tour operators a chance to take Hajj pilgrims was taken by the Council of Ministers and not his ministry.
The business of taking people on the annual Hajj pilgrimage is far from simple. With hundreds of thousands of people coming from all over the world, even the slightest organisational hiccup could lead to pilgrims waiting six to seven days at the airport on arrival.
Haji Mirza, who has been on pilgrimage several times to Saudi Arabia, says Afghan pilgrims face two big problems: little information on how to prepare for the pilgrimage and poor health services. In his opinion, private tour companies are better organised than the government.
Last year 49,000 people applied for the Hajj. Only 35,000 were invited. Of these 5,000 were transported by private companies, while the rest were taken by the Afghan government. Those who went with the government paid 2,875 USD each.