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Footprints: HANGING BY A THREAD

January 16, 2018

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A MAN transports goods on a chairlift.—Photo by writer
A MAN transports goods on a chairlift.—Photo by writer

“I PUT my life at risk daily travelling in makeshift chairlifts,” says Shahabuddin, a schoolteacher, walking down towards the bank of the River Indus. “The chairlift’s cable has been broken for a year and it has become a threat to our lives.”

For many living in villages in Pakistan’s northern areas, makeshift chairlifts are the only mode of transport they can use to cross the mighty River Indus and other smaller rivers in the area. Mada Khel Abad, a union council of the newly formed district of Kolai Pallas in Kohistan, has some 30 small villages with a population estimated at around 30,000. Shahabuddin commutes daily to Bankot in Kollai Pallas, where he teaches at the local public primary school, on rickety makeshift chairlifts — known locally as Zangoo.

Installed decades ago, these lifts have become worn down by time and sharp winds, and have now become a hazard. The makeshift chairlifts operate at dozens of crossing points along the River Indus between Besham in Shangla district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Chillas area of Gilgit Baltistan. They are operated manually by an iron hand-crank at staggering heights between 1,000ft and 3,500ft above sea level.

The risk these chairlifts pose became apparent earlier this year in May, when at least four men drowned in the River Indus when the cables of a makeshift chairlift snapped in the Samar Nullah area of Diamer district. The raging river swept the victims away within minutes and two of the bodies were never found. Residents of these areas believe it is only a matter of time before another incident like this happens.

I decide to assess the problem myself so I ask Sar Buland, a resident of a neighbouring village, to accompany me on a ride on the chairlift in the Bankot area. We walk some 30 minutes before arriving at the area’s Zangoo.

“Shall I start the chairlift?” asks Sar Buland, raising his voice amidst the strong winds blustering around us. I ask him to wait a little. But even though we wait for a long time, there is no let up in the wind — not even a little — and it leaves us feeling paralysed.

We are standing on high ground here, at a point so precarious that the slightest wrong move would send our bodies hurtling into the unrelenting River Indus. Sar Buland squares his shoulders and climbs into the lift. I follow, albeit with great hesitation.

“Shall I start now?” he repeats his question.

My answer comes in the form of Quranic verses that I — numb with fear — start reciting. Sar Buland grabs hold of the hand-crank and the chairlift begins to move up the cable. As it approaches the centre of the river, the chairlift starts rocking back and forth because of the wind. I start to tremble of fear.

Seemingly experienced in travelling this way, Sar Buland holding the hand-crank takes us safely across the river. By that time, however, I am frozen with fear; as I step onto the ground, the only words I could utter were: “Thank God”.

A grim-faced Sar Buland explains, “The water level in the River Indus rises during the summer and with it, the fear of falling into the river... that makes it harder to find the bodies.” He travels to Besham City daily for business and has no other option but to take the Zangoo across the river. “There used to be an operator who would run the lift but even he quit the job because it had become dangerous.”

Among the daily commuters of these makeshift chairlifts are schoolchildren, says Shahabuddin. “As many as 30 students use the chairlift to travel to their high school in Chakai, which is located in lower Kohistan,” says the schoolteacher, adding that residents have raised the issue with their local political representatives several times, but have only received empty reassurances.

“My classmates and I travel daily to school like this. It is a risk and our fears have increased because of the conditions of the cables,” says Hidayatullah, a student of grade 7. Just Thursday this week, a seven-year-old boy fell off a makeshift chairlift in the Sew area of Dassu in upper Koshistan.

Deputy Commissioner Farhatullah Marwat explains that Kolai Pallas is a newly-formed district and as such “we have no funds yet because the accounts department has not been established”. He adds: “However, the matter will be discussed with the tehsil municipal authorities’ department so that the cables of the lift can be changed.”

But Karim Khan, a former village chairman, has threatened to agitate. If the government does not provide a permanent safe mode of travel across the river soon, area residents will stage protest on the Karakoram Highway, he warns. “We have been failed by our governments,” he says. “We cannot even shift our patients, even women in labour, to hospitals.”

The lift was first installed in 1987, and since then, the cable has been changed twice, he adds. But this is not a permanent solution, he emphasises. “If some day a cable breaks again, there will be another big tragedy.”

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2018