A risky business

Chairlifts are used mostly in Malakand and Hazara divisions, in the absence of good roads and public transport. In some areas these are the only way for children to go to school

A risky business


ixteen-year-old Kaleem Ullah, a resident of Manai Sar village, is a student in the 10th grade at the Government High Secondary School, Alpuri, Shangla. He commutes daily by a makeshift chairlift that connects his village to the main road. It takes Kaleem five minutes to reach the main road using a chairlift. In another 15 minutes, he reaches his classroom.

Attaullah Khan, Kaleem’s younger brother, is a student in the 8th grade in a private school at Shangla. He, too, commutes daily in the same way. Kaleem Ullah and Attaullah are not rare examples. At least 200 students in nearby villages use chairlifts, the only means of transportation – and a risky one at that, to reach their schools.

Their father, Afsar Khan, tells The News on Sunday the nearest city is 11 kilometres from their village. Chairlifts are the fastest way to reach the city. From Alpuri to Manai Sar village there is a bumpy rocky road traversed by jeeps. The road journey takes an hour and a half.

Makeshift chairlifts are a risky means of transportation in the remote valleys of Malakand and Hazara divisions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Local communities lacking access to good roads and bridges often use these chairlifts as an easy, convenient and quick means of transportation. Sometimes, there are tragic or scary accidents.

Afsar Khan says that for over a decade they have been demanding the construction of roads in the area from their elected representatives. So far, there has been no progress.

In Malakand, the chairlift services have turned into a profitable business. There is a one-time investment and the operation offers a steady source of income. The cable car operators decide the fares. For adults, a one-way ride typically costs Rs 40; students are charged Rs 20 and tourists Rs 50. Afsar Khan says over a thousand people use these chairlifts on a daily basis.

“The construction of roads and schools can reduce the cost of living for the local community. If we have good roads to Kot Kay and Alpuri, most people will not use these chairlifts. Dozens of children drop out of schools every year because the parents are simply unable to pay daily chairlift fares,” says Afsar Khan.

Kamal Zada, 43, is employed at the district health office. He is a regular chairlift commuter. Speaking on the phone with TNS from Shangla, he says the Manai Sar chairlifts connect at least 12 villages with Kot Kay and Alpuri. Initially, there was just one line but now, two chairlifts operate in the area. “Last year a commuter was seriously injured when a rope broke. Safety is a major concern for commuters but they have limited options,” says Kamal Zada.

Following a dispute between the chairlift operators, both Manai Sar lifts were closed for ten months. “Due to that closure, at least ten students dropped out of schools. Lack of health facilities in these villages, and the difficulty of access to hospitals has resulted in women and newborns dying at homes following complicated delivery cases,” Kamal Zada recalls.

On June 24, a chairlift rope broke in Bahrain, Upper Swat. A woman and her infant daughter died after falling into the gushing waters of the Swat River. In Malakand division, chairlift accidents are reported every year. Unfortunately, these have not resulted in meaningful regulation of the services by the authorities.

In Malakand division, devastating floods last year washed away many bridges over rivers. The slow pace of repair and rehabilitation work has encouraged the installation of several chairlifts for daily commutes across the rivers. Some of these chairlifts are also used by students to reach their schools.

In the past, chairlift operations did not require a no-objection certificate from the municipal authorities. After the Battagram chairlift incident, the KP government has issued instructions for the inspection and enhancement of safety measures for chairlifts in the province and district administrations have been directed to undertake thorough inspections of local chairlift services.

Speaking to TNS, Malakand Commissioner Shahid Ullah Khan says all deputy commissioners have been instructed to focus on chairlifts that traverse over rivers and streams. The administration, he says, is currently inspecting the chairlifts. “The assistant commissioners have been tasked to evaluate design, capacity and safety features of all chairlifts. The district administration is ensuring public safety. After a thorough inspection, hazardous chairlifts have been sealed,” says the commissioner.

The commissioners say that over the past decade at least 40 cable cars have been installed in Malakand division. To regulate the operation of chairlifts effectively, the provincial government has mandated an NOC from the district administration. He says that after the Battagram incident, chairlift operators are rushing to the deputy commissioners’ offices to obtain the NOCs.

“Chairlifts not meeting the safety standards have been sealed. The operators have been told to adhere to safety protocols,” says Shahid Ullah Khan.

The writer is a freelance multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

A risky business