Friday, September 25, 2015

How Mina Stampede Happened and How to Avoid it: Hajjis Traffic Management System:

During my hajj of 1996, we were in a segment of road in approximately the same area where Mina 2015 stampede occurred. We experienced how a stampede-like situation begins to build as hajjis begin thronging towards jumaraat. I can still feel the tension developing in the air, the silence of lull before the storm, the panic on the faces of the people, their deep anguished breathing, their anxious glancing to the left and right, their groping for space forward and backward, and the fear and nervousness writ large on their faces, and that waiting as if for a cue to really fly off the handle and start the domino that would lead to the stampede. The apprehension building on the faces of the people as they start coming closer and closer and start pushing more and more. Fortunately, there was no stampede, we avoided it because we along with large number of other hajjis were able to escape out of the road segment where the congestion was developing. We managed to enter the adjoining muktab by creating an opening in its perimeter wall and which, fortunately, in those days were not as tightly blocked for non-muktab hajjis as they are today. From that  muktab, we ejected out to the other parallel road, and from there we retreated back and postponed our attempt to jumaraat for a couple of hours.

The situation had developed, because hajjis coming from behind have no way of knowing that there is congestion developing in the segment in front of them. We were stuck in a segment and could not move forward because the segment in our front had already choked or was moving much more slowly then the influx from our behind. The segement in our front was choked because the entrance to jumaraat was choked, which was choked because the  jumaraat segment had more hajjis entering than the number of hajjis who were leaving.

Poor hajjis coming from afar continue to enter the segments where congestion is begining to develop because they do not know about the jam-packed situation in the jumaraat segment and the congestion becoming severe in segments before that. With no place to spillover in the intervening segments and with no "information support", the hajjis in the intervening segment start getting pushed closer and closer to one another. The only way to relieve them is to allow them to open the walls of fortified muktab for congestion to spill over. Unless the ripple effect of congestion in one segment is not used to regulate the congestion at the previous segment, and the spiral buildup is not constrained, the chances of tragedies will remain.

We need to go beyond the simple blame-game like blaming the hajjis, or their training, or their herding behavior. We need to go beyond the simple measures like announcing muktab-wise time slots for jumaraat, or yet another construction project for creating wider and higher structures for jumraat. None of these provide any information to either the authorities for flow management or to hajjis to make informed decisions about whether to move forward or wait. 2015 Mina stampede  shows that these measures have failed in solving the problem of traffic management, or congestion control or of flow regulation. Unless the issue of regulating the net in-flow of hajjis in a particular segment of the access road is not controlled, stampedes like 2015 Mina stampede can not be avoided. The system must give information about the net in-flows for a given segment; i.e. number of hajjis entering a particular segment minus the number of hajjis leaving that segments. Then operations research methodologies (developed in Second World War)  need to be used to regulate the movement of hajjis from one segment to another (using the century old traffic lights mechanism).

Hajj authorities need to install a traffic management system that should give instant information about how many hajjis are there in a given segment of the road leading to jumaraat. The information should provide the usual green, yellow, and red light signaling that should be visible to hajjis moving in any direction along with information of congestion status of segments in front and behind. This information-based traffic management would help the authorities as well as hajjis, who will be better able to manage their safety. Currently hajjis are blind and have no information about the situation developing in front and authorities only have pictures but no information about the count of hajjis in various segments of Mina that can alert them about potential congestion spots building up. How this can be enabled is quite simple and easier with today's technologies and with tons of implementation experience elsewhere. There are hundreds of traffic management systems installed in various big cities for understanding the basic mechanisms that need to be applied to the patterns of pedestrian traffic at Mina. Unlike traffic patterns of big cities, Mina traffic patterns are predictable and should therefore be much easier to regulate.

Today muktab reserved areas in Mina have become no-go areas for hajjis not belonging to that muktab. This constrains the space available to hajis during time of emergencies like these. We require fire-escapes on Mina roads and other segments where congestion develops just as we have fire-escapes in buildings. We need to have equipment such as fire-hoses, axes and other implements in glass cabinets all across the route. The idea is that during emergency the glass could be broken by people to take self-rescue action. Availability of axes to pilgrims during the congestion buildup would have allowed the hajjis to break the wall of the muktabs and spill over to wider spaces.

Please note that this is no rocket science. Scientists have been working on traffic flow management for decades, have designed and implemented these systems in variety of places and variety of different types of traffic. Operations research was developed during the second world war and had been an established scientific discipline for a long time. Add to this the development of traffic engineering management, workflow management, process reengineering disciplines and you have the pools of experts for whom the pedestrian traffic managment at Mina should not be a unique problem. However, it is imperative that the commercial interests of the transporters, tour operators, builders, maktab operators, hotel operators should not be allowed to interfere with the complete process reengineering of  the movement of hajjis irrespective of the distinction of VIPs and non VIPs.

Following things need to be immediately implemented:
  • Removal of muktab system and fortified no go areas. All passageways need to be open for traffic moving in all directions. This would just open up immense spaces. Muktab system has outlived its utility and has become a commercial enterprise rather than a utility service. 
  • Mina area needs to be divided into clearly defined segments with in-flows and out-flow measurements to give us data about how many hajjis are currently in that segment and to tell us whether the numbers are manageable or not. Installation of turnstiles at various points of entries and exits. The turnstiles would give a dynamic data of how many hajjis are leaving which segments and how many are entering which segment. We can also use image recognition cameras for the measurement of flows instead of mechanical turnstiles.
  • Depending upon the size of that area, traffic management lights at various intersections should inform the hajjis of whether to move in a particular direction or not. The lights need to be synchronized so that information of jumaraat segment is used to control the traffic in the segment before it and from there the information is used to control the traffic of the segment before it. 
  • Evaluation of traffic management technologies around the world and selection of one appropriate for the problem at hand. 
  • Simulation and modeling of traffic flows. Flow patterns of hajjis need to be put into simulators and detailed simulations run for the patterns of these accidents. 
  • Installation of traffic management system and their stress testing. 
  • We need to also question why jumaraat need to be done by pedestrians. Why can't we build moving platforms like the ones we see at airports, only more robust and much more bigger. Why can't a rail system be established where instead of bogies there are just very wide open flat surfaces that continually move slowly around jumaraat. The speed is such that they are easy to embark and disembark and people simply stand where they are and the platform takes them to place where stone throwing need to be done. 

These systems are also required in and around the haram areas.


I received a call from Dr Farid Siddiqui who had done his Masters from UPM, Dharan and later did his PhD from UT Austin and was colleague of mine when I was doing my PhD. He had contacts in Saudi  Arabia and he told me of having attended a conference some 8-9 years ago where he saw demonstration of such a traffic management system that works on the feedback on density of Hajjis in  a given segment. He said that in the two Hajs that he had done during the last few years he had seen that such information is available and being used by the authorities and such signalling system for Hajjis is already there. If such a system exists, then how did this tragedy occurred. We need to investigate why the feedback from the system was not used for traffic control and congestion management. Availability of information but lack of management indicates issues in prompt decision making and promt response. 

See Also:

["We" in this experience of our first attempt for jumaraat in 1996 included Rauf Mamoo, Arif Bhai, and Dr Noman Haider (my brother). Other experiences of that Hajj are described elsewhere].

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