As one of the most populous Muslim nations on Earth, in fact the third-largest behind Indonesia and Pakistan, Bangladesh has always provided one of the largest contingents at the Hajj - the annual pilgrimage to Islam's holiest site in Makkah. Each nation is allotted a certain number by the Saudi Arabian government, which they try to do as judiciously and efficiently as possible given that a large part of the Saudi royal family's legitimacy is derived from its custodianship of the mosques in Makkah and Madina - so much so, that it is inscribed on the country's flag. Plus of course, religious tourism makes for big business in the kingdom.
Pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia are managed by nine joint stock companies under the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, and they rake in revenues of over $12 billion every Hajj season - a whopping 7 percent of the kingdom's GDP. The formula for each country's quota of pilgrims was unanimously determined and agreed upon at a meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1987. The agreement stipulates that the ratio is set at one per 1,000 people of the country's population. That all was of course dashed aside for the last three years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bangladesh had just negotiated 10,000 extra places for its citizens towards the end of 2019, meaning its quota would go from 127,000 to 137,000 in 2020. Bangladesh is one of the countries that was always oversubscribed, with many going onto a waiting list in case of other nations failing to fill their quota.
Amazingly, this year for the first time in living memory, Bangladesh looks to have failed to fill its quota. This is an unprecedented situation, but there is a reason without precedent behind it too. That happens to be the unprecedented hike in the price of the standard Hajj packages - after the government announced a whopping 30 percent hike in the price of packages under government management, from Tk 5.2 lakh to Tk 6.8 lakh, private agents followed suit. There is no credible explanation for such a price on faith. Is it to exploit the pilgrims' fervour, following the restrictions imposed by the pandemic? If it was, it has backfired.
The hajj is mandatory only for those who have the financial means. Presented with such exorbitant demands on their faith, they have negotiated with their conscience to turn away. One's faith should never be used to exploit them. They look around and see, India announced its hajj package in 2018, priced at Rs3.99 lakh - at today's exchange rate, around Tk 5.2 lakh. They haven't changed the prices till 2022, according to the website of Hajj Committee of India. In Bangladesh it is almost a given that each year the price will go up. In Pakistan, the price is estimated to be around 1 million Pakistani rupees, which when converted to Bangladeshi currency is around Tk 4 lakh.
And so now, even after extending the deadline multiple times, Bangladesh looks likely to fall around 11,000 short of its quota of 127,000 for this year - around 9 percent. Again, despite being the post-pandemic pilgrimage that at one stage, before the price hike was announced, already had a huge waiting list. Even the age limit for Hajj pilgrims has been lifted by the Saudi government this year - paving the way for people over 65 to attend. But this is far from indicative of the nature or level of the people's piety. They remain as pious as ever. It is the authorities that have let down their faith.
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