Ropeways in India: Advantages, Challenges and Suggestions – Explained, pointwise

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Recently, over 40 people were trapped mid-air in cable cars in Jharkhand’s Deoghar. The Indian Air Force had to mount a rescue mission. The mission took 45 hours to rescue all passengers but unfortunately, three lives were lost. Though the incident has been termed as a ‘unique accident’ or ‘statistical rarity’, the event highlights the challenges associated with the ropeways. A government-backed agency had conducted a safety audit about three weeks before the incident mentioned that the ropeway system has ’24 local flaws/initiation of flaws” and recommended a ‘close visual watch‘ on the rope and its joints or the ‘splicing portions’.

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About the present ropeway accident

The ropeway is situated around 20 km from the famous Baba Baidyanath Shiv temple in Deoghar. It is India’s highest vertical ropeway and is around 766-metres-long. Further, the ropeway is located in densely forested valleys surrounded by hills.

A pulley of one of the cable cars got stuck resulting in the incident. The trolleys were hanging mid-air at a height of nearly 100 feet. The Trikut hills are 392 meters high, making rescue operations difficult except by helicopters. There is a service rope to rescue people if trolleys get stuck. However, in this incident; the service rope could not be used. This is because the operational rope sagged owing to the weight of the stranded cable cars, thus increasing the gap between the service and operational rope.

The rescue operation was conducted by the Indian Air Force with assistance from the Indian Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the district administration.

What are ropeways and how are they regulated?

It is a transport system for materials or people, used especially in mines or mountainous areas. In ropeways, carriers are suspended from moving cables powered by a motor.

The regulatory authority of ropeways in India

In February 2021, the Government amended the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules 1961. This amendment enabled the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to look after the development of Ropeways and Alternate Mobility Solutions.

The Ministry also has the responsibility for the development of ropeway and alternative mobility solutions technology, as well as construction, research, and policy in this area. Formulation of the institutional, financial, and regulatory frameworks for the technology also falls under the ambit of this allocation.

What initiatives have been taken by the Government to promote Ropeways?

Before 2018, there were 65 ropeways in India, with several others were under construction or were being considered, mainly in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Northeastern States.

In 2018, Niti Aayog released a draft public-private partnership agreement framework to guide State governments in the design and implementation of ropeway projects.

National Ropeways Development Programme: In Union Budget 2022-23, the government has announced that the National Ropeways Development Programme – “Parvatmala” will be initiated through Public-Private Partnership (PPP) mode.

Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) is the Nodal Ministry of the programme. The programme aims to develop Ropeways in hilly areas of the country in a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) mode.

The programme will also cover congested urban areas, where conventional mass transit systems are not feasible. The programme is being presently started in regions like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Jammu & Kashmir and the other North-Eastern states.

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What are the advantages of creating ropeway infrastructure in India?

Ideal for difficult/challenging/sensitive terrain: Developing an efficient transport network is a big challenge in hilly areas. The rail and air transport networks are limited in these areas, while the development of road networks has technical challenges. Against this backdrop, Ropeways emerge as a safe alternate transport mode.

Economic benefits: (a) Ropeways having multiple cars propelled by a single power plant and drive mechanism. This reduces both construction and maintenance costs; (b) Further, the ropeways employ a single operator for an entire ropeway. This results in huge savings in labour costs. (c) On level ground, the cost of ropeways is competitive with narrow-gauge railroads. On the other hand, in the mountains the ropeway is far superior to railroads.

Economical mode of transportation: Ropeway projects are built in a straight line over hilly terrain. Hence, despite having a higher cost of construction per km than roadways, ropeway projects’ construction cost may happen to be economical than roadways.

Boon for local people: This mode of transportation enables mobility for people living in difficult areas and helps them become part of the mainstream. Villagers/farmers living in such areas are able to sell their produces in other areas, which in turn will help them grow their income.

Environmentally friendly: Only narrow vertical supports are needed at intervals for ropeways, leaving the rest of the ground free. This makes it possible for ropeways to be constructed in built-up areas and in places where there is intense competition for land use.

They also have low dust emissions. Further, material containers can be designed so as to rule out any soiling of the environment.

Other advantages

Ability to handle large slopes: Ropeways and cableways (cable cranes) can handle large slopes and large differences in elevation.

Faster mode of transportation: Owing to the aerial mode of transportation, ropeways have an advantage over roadway projects.

Last-mile connectivity: Ropeway projects adopting 3S (a kind of cable car system) or equivalent technologies can transport 6000-8000 passengers per hour.

Transport of different materials: A ropeway allows the simultaneous transportation of different types of material.

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What are the challenges associated with ropeways?

In February 2010, the Ministry of Environment & Forests released an EIA guidance manual for ropeways. The manual lists a wide range of impacts due to ropeways, such as,

Disturb fragile mountain ecosystems: Ropeway projects are rarely planned in isolation. They are usually the precursors of development. For instance, in the construction of the Jakhu ropeway in Himachal Pradesh, over 100 Deodar trees, some of which were over 200 years old, were cut down.

Change in topography and drainage pattern: Topsoil erosion and Soil contamination due to project activities might create a loss of productive soil and impact natural drainage patterns in the region.

Other challenges include (a) Loss of forest cover; (b) Habitat fragmentation; (c) Blocking of migratory corridors,  (d) Exploitation of ground/surface water.

Researchers found that ropeways built in Nepal in 1998 destroyed the existing drainage corridor and caused heavy flooding and erosion in the monsoon of 1999.

Threats due to increased tourism: The use of ropeways is directly connected with tourism and commercial purposes. They will open up hilltops for tourism, which were earlier accessible to people only on foot.

This increased thrust will result in: (a) Increasing emissions from vehicles and generators; (b) Creating impacts of vibration and waste generation; (c) Damaging the historically important sites in the area.

Hence, opening up areas to tourism without any cumulative assessment of impacts on hill ecology, wildlife and local livelihoods, risk evaluation, and carrying capacity studies could be dangerous.

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What should be done?

Proper study before construction: In fragile ecosystems such as the Himalayas, ropeways should be constructed only if geological studies and environmental impact assessment reports don’t highlight any serious concerns.

Cause no disturbance to the ecology: While constructing ropeways the government should take utmost efforts to bypass the reserved forest and other ecologically sensitive areas. Similarly, the government should also take mitigating measures to compensate for the loss of forest cover by replantation. Restoration/Regeneration of rare plants of economic importance, especially medicinal plant species.

Reduce solid waste generation:  The government should explore the options for the minimization of solid waste. Simultaneously, environmentally compactable recycling of waste to conserve natural resources should be planned.

Periodic Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) activities: The government should ensure proper MRO activities in the already constructed ropeways. These activities must address issues in fire safety, ensure the safety and proper functioning of SOS operations, and address mechanical and electrical issues. This will prevent any further incidences like Deoghar.

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The Indian government has been advocating ropeways for tourism and urban transport. They are encouraged as a low-cost, low-energy form of transport and development that can reduce pollution. But as pointed out by experts and communities, the government should address the unintended consequences associated with ropeways.

Source: Mint, PIB

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