April Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Corruption and incompetence in government departments in Pakistan probably reached their pinnacle recently with the ministry of religious affairs involved in a huge financial scam running into millions of rupees. The figures involved notwithstanding, there has been no government action against the ministry and there seems to be little hope that the victims of the scam — would-be Haj pilgrims and tour operators — will be reimbursed for their financial losses any time soon.

Reportedly, the cumulative monetary loss for 8000 or so applicants for the open Haj scheme (OHS), who were unscrupulously deprived of their right to perform the pilgrimage — a large number of them at the eleventh hour — is over eight hundred million rupees. What these people suffered in terms of emotional distress, having mentally and physically geared themselves for a journey that for many is the most significant occasion in their lives, cannot possibly be measured. But compounding the trauma manifold, is the monetary loss, particularly for those who had invested their life savings in the intended pilgrimage.

This year, Pakistan’s quota for Haj pilgrims, including overseas Pakistanis, was 140,000 — about 10,000 more than last year’s — raising the hopes of many who felt they had a better chance then ever before of being able to perform the coveted pilgrimage. However, due to the shenanigans of the ministry involved, reportedly only 120,000 finally managed to perform Haj.

According to the most recent Haj policy, pilgrims are divided into four categories: the Regular Haj Scheme, the Sponsorship Scheme, the Overseas Pakistani Scheme and the Open Haj Scheme. The government issues special Haj passports for people doing the pilgrimage under the General Haj Scheme and the Sponsorship Scheme, and is responsible for the pilgrims’ travel arrangements. The quota for hajis under these schemes are 50,000 and 60,000 respectively. Under the Overseas Pakistani Scheme, pilgrims make their arrangements for Haj through the Pakistani missions in their respective areas of residence. The quota for hajis under this scheme is 15,000. Those performing the pilgrimage under the Open Haj Scheme, use their international passports for travel and all arrangements for the pilgrimage are made for them through agents of their choice. This scheme accounts for 15,000 pilgrims.

It was in the last category that the huge scam was carried out. While the quota under this scheme was an unambiguous 15,000, for reasons best known to the ministry, it had 30,000 forms printed for intending pilgrims. Of these, 800 forms were allocated to Peshawar; 4000 to Islamabad; 5000 to Lahore; 10,000 to Karachi; 5000 to Quetta; 200 to Sukkur; 500 to Multan and 9,000 were retained by the ministry in the open Haj cell. The ministry then proceeded to sell the forms it had in its posession. In the process, thousands of applicants who had made it to the 15,000 — the stipulated quota — and whose forms had been accepted by the ministry were eliminated from the running since the Saudi embassy had made it clear that it would not entertain more than the 15,000 that had been sanctioned under the approved policy.

According to a travel agent who prefers to remain anonymous, “It was the biggest money-making racket ever. The ministry charged 500 rupees per Haj application form and 2000 rupees as a service charge if the applicant completed the formalities before September 21. After the due date, there was a late fee to the tune of 5,000 rupees. The ministry received 5, 000 applications within the due date and 14,500 forms were accepted with late fees till the official cut-off date of November 30. However, applications were reportedly being ‘unofficially’ accepted till December 30, even though the ministry was fully aware that there was no chance of accommodating all the applicants. Ultimately, at the eleventh hour, the ministry announced that it was rejecting 4,200 random applications outright, because the numbers had exceeded the approved quota. In fact, 8000 or so people whose applications had been accepted did not make it, because their place was taken by others with the right connections, or the financial wherewithal, or both — and to add insult to injury, they have no hope of having the money they had paid reimbursed.”

Says a travel agent who spent three days outside the ministry in Islamabad, “The kinds of irregularities that were committed this year are unthinkable. Firstly the ministry accepted far too many passports; then instead of sending them to the embassy in serial order, preference was given to cronies; people with inside sources, or to those who bribed their way in. Thus, in order to accommodate favourites or those who were willing to pay the ministry between 10,000 to 20,000 rupees extra for being included, ministry officials pulled out, at random from every stack, passports of legitimate applicants and never sent them to the Saudi embassy.”

The result was many cases in which visas were issued to the women in a group but not to their mehrams (mandatory male relative escorts for women performing Haj) since the ministry had not even bothered to scrutinise the application papers to determine who was indispensable to each group before pulling them out. Similarly, almost every group had at least a couple of women that had not been issued visas, although their mehrams had been issued them. And contrary to allegations made by the ministry that the Saudi embassy had rejected a large number of visas, embassy officials declare that they did not reject any passport that was sent to them. According to them, as long as the mehram form was attached to a woman’s passport, visas were issued, and there was no way for the embassy to keep track of whether the mehram’s passport had been submitted to them or not.

Take the case of Mariam Halai, one of the unfortunate ones who never managed to perform the pilgrimage. Says she, “I was one of a group of 12 that had applied for visas. Seven had no problems, while four women, including myself , didn’t get our visas. We kept changing our bookings and each time would be assured by the agent whose services we had acquired that our visas would arrive the following day as our names had not appeared on the rejection list. But the wait was in vain. Finally, my brother went to Islamabad on February 2 and after hounding the ministry was informed on the night of February 4 that four of us had been refused visas as our names were not on their lists. He went to the ministry on the morning of February 5 to collect our passports and found two among the piles of rejected ones — mine and a friend’s whose husband had got the visa, and who had been planning on taking her for Haj as a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary present. Both our passports had no rejection stamps on them and the bank drafts were still attached, so presumably they had never been sent to the embassy.

“The third woman from our group who had not been sent her passport received it by TCS a few days later. Her husband and father-in-law had got their visas, but she hadn’t, so she couldn’t go. The family members of the fourth woman personally went to the ministry to unearth her passport, only to discover that she had been issued a visa after all! So she managed to leave by the last Haj flight out.”

There are reportedly numerous such cases of people who had been issued visas, but didn’t receive their passports in time — probably because they didn’t have the means to ferret the passports out for themselves — or were sent their passports with the required visas by TCS far too late.

Sanober Shiraz and her aunt are among the lucky ones who were issued visas, while the three others in their party, including their mehram, were informed by the ministry that the Saudi embassy had rejected their visas. Sanober’s husband, Saeed Shiraz describes his harrowing experience in Islamabad when he went to collect the ‘rejected’ passports. “The ministry had erected huge barricades around it, and I had to pull strings in order to be able to enter. Inside, I found piles and piles of passports that the ministry claimed had been rejected by the embassy and it took me four hours of rummaging through them to discover ours. None of our passports had rejection stamps on them and I took these to the Saudi embassy to explain that the two ladies couldn’t possibly travel without their mehram. The embassy was most obliging and immediately issued the mehram’s visa. In fact, they were issuing visas in all such cases and went out of their way to accommodate pilgrims who had been stranded because of the corruption and indifference of our ministry, in spite of the fact that in doing so they were exceeding the quota that had been allowed to Pakistan.” In fact, every person spoken to has expressed appreciation of the cooperation extended by the Saudi embassy staff and the fact that they went out of their way to rectify the mess created by the ministry.

By contrast the stories emanating from assorted quarters about the ministry of religious affairs are shocking to say the least. Aziz-ur-Rehman Rajput, proprietor of Karvan-e-Madina, a travel agency, was so infuriated by the ministry that he has no qualms about divulging his identity, “No passports were sent to the embassy till January 22, although the ministry had begun to receive them months earlier. My own agency had submitted 352 passports with all the documentation complete and approved by the ministry, their registration numbers in the 5000 and 9000 series, but they sat on them till February 22. Then, on the 22nd, although all 352 passports had had been issued visas, they were not collected by the ministry.

“On the 30th, we received a call from officials of Saudia, [the Saudi airline], asking about our travel arrangements as we still hadn’t sent them the passports and all our hajis were booked on their flight out the following morning. When we explained our situation, they called up the embassy to check on the status of our passports and were informed that the passports were ready and that no one from the ministry had come to collect them. The representative of the airline, Mr Mohammed Yousuf, was granted permission by the embassy to collect the passports, which he did the same day. He then took the passports to the ministry for the moallim drafts and was summarily informed by joint-secretary Azam Rathore to come the next day. Yousuf explained that it was imperative that the drafts be given the same day as the hajis were to fly out the following morning, at which Rathore not only flew off the handle, he grabbed the box of passports, ordered that the ministry be closed for the day, and drove off with the box.

“We kept trying to get in touch with him and with the secretary, Jameel Ahmed Bhutto, all night, but in vain. The next day, we were at the ministry at 8 a.m. but there was no sign of Rathore. At 9 a.m. we requested the airline to delay the flight as so many pilgrims were booked on it. One must hand it to the airline that it sought permission from their Jeddah office and they obliged. The country manager of the airline then got involved and contacted the Saudi ambassador, who in turn contacted various high-ups in the foreign affairs department and vigorously pursued the issue. It paid off, and although Rathore did not show up, the passports were finally given to us at 11 a.m. We then rushed to collect the hajis from their respective hotels, handed them their passports, and sent them by the 4 p.m. flight. I am in no doubt that the only objective of the ministry in harassing us in this way was to try and wrangle money out of us, knowing that we would be desperate.”

Every agent has a story to tell. One states that he had a group of hajis whose passports’ registration numbers were on the approval list, but when he went to collect them from the ministry, he discovered they had not been issued visas. “I took the passports to the embassy and they issued the visas the same day. In fact, I know of many such cases where they obliged even after the last date to make up for the gross inefficiency of our ministry staff, although they didn’t have to.”

Yet another agent discloses that the ministry officials were not willing to meet any travel operators and locked themselves up inside the ministry building, while they had to spend days outside in the cold and rain waiting for their respective passports. Shuddering as he recalls the gruelling experience, with angry would-be pilgrims and travel operators staging demonstrations outside the ministry, he claims that when he was called in to collect his clients’ passports which he had submitted in September, he found as he rummaged through the piles lying there in comple disarray that entire series of passports were missing — for example while passports with registration numbers that squarely placed them in the 15,000 quota were missing, others submitted much later going up to the 19,000 mark had visas stamped on them.

Horror stories related to the ministry don’t end here. Allegedly, although the ministry made 9 to 10 crores on just the bank drafts and application forms, that did not deter them from stealing bank drafts from a number of ‘rejected’ passports. According to sources, bank drafts of 1029 Saudi riyals (about 16,500 rupees) of some 4000 applicants were found missing. These drafts can apparently be resold at a slightly lower price to umrah pilgrims later in the year since they do not carry the name of the moallim (group leader during Haj).

And if the pilgrims thought their problems were over once their visas had been issued and they had their passports in hand, they couldn’t have been more wrong. With constant changes in flight bookings of an overwhelmingly large number of passengers, there were no seats available. Once again it was the Saudi government that came through for the Pakistani pilgrims. Initially, the last Haj flight was scheduled for Feb 5, but seeing the predicament of the hajis, they extended their service right up till February 8 when they ran two flights to accommodate all the waiting pilgrims. On the other hand, the Pakistan government left no stone unturned to inconvenience the hajis as much as possible. The pilgrims flying on February 6, with confirmed tickets in their hands and in full ahram, reached the airport only to find that they could not board the flight because bureaucrats had taken their seats. They were made to spend the night in ahram at the airport, and were sent the next day.

As for the ministry’s accommodation arrangements in Mecca, enough has been written about it in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of newspapers for people to gauge the pilgrims’ continuing ordeal prior to and even during Haj.

For those who never managed to go, emotional distress apart, the monetary losses are substantial. These include 500 rupees for the Haj application forms; 2000 rupees service charges; 5000 rupees late fees, and 1500 rupees bank draft cancellation charges. Yasmeen Baseer, one victim of the Haj debacle, paid an even heavier price. She had paid her travel operators all three installments, according to the programme worked out between them, including moallim fees and airfare, since it had never occurred to her that she might not be able to go. So far she has not been reimbursed a single penny. In addition, for many who didn’t make it, there were the costs incurred of travel from various cities to Islamabad to retrieve missing passports.

Many other intending pilgrims also incurred losses on account of advances for booked accommodation and travel arrangements within Saudi Arabia. Apart from would-be hajis, agencies too have lost millions of rupees, as they have lost payments made by them for accommodation in Saudi Arabia for their respective clients who never made it.

And all this unholiness in the land of the pure for the holiest of Muslim rituals, by members of a ministry that is supposed to be the custodian of Pakistan’s morality.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.