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Prospects of ropeways in Nepal

Prospects of ropeways in Nepal

“Ropeways can be a vital means of goods-transport in a country like Nepal with its rugged terrains and ever-present risks of roads being blocked by water-induced disasters,” says Victoria Hilda Rigby Delmon, Manager, INR Asia Upstream and Advisory-IFC. “Compared to air and road transport, ropeway transport is cheaper too.”

The importance of ropeways for Nepal had become evident even a century ago: construction on the country’s first ropeway, the 22-km link between Makawanpur and Kathmandu, had started in 1922 under the orders of Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher. In the latter half of the 20th century, the country had many more ropeway lines. In 1986, Hetauda Cement Factory started one to ferry limestones.

In 1995, the Conservation Ropeway was built at Bhattedanda on the outskirts of Kathmandu valley to transport milk. There were a few other lines as well. But they soon fell into disuse as the national focus shifted to roadbuilding, despite clear evidence of the cost-effectiveness of the ropeways. Now the discourse on the revival of ropeways in Nepal has again started. Seven ropeways for human transport and almost a dozen gravity goods ropeways are in operation in Nepal.

Reports suggest that the country could have ropeways in nearly 2,000 areas and feasibility studies have been conducted in 62 places. But to install a ropeway for people transport in Nepal, an investor has to get approval from 21 different government authorities. “We’ll not attract investors unless our bureaucratic hurdles are simplified,” says Guna Raj Dhakal, chairperson of Ropeway Nepal Pvt Ltd. Installing ropeways is six times cheaper than building roads and the maintenance cost is also low.

The 42-km Hetauda-Kathmandu Ropeway, for instance, cost half as much as the Tribhuvan Highway on the same route to build. “Yet the government is still skeptical about ropeways,” adds Dhakal. “We don’t even have a dedicated ropeway department or policies for that matter.” IME Group, which built Chandragiri Cable Car under Chandragiri Hills Pvt Ltd, is currently working on additional cable car services. These include Butwal Bazar-Basantapur (3 km), Chisapani Highway-Rajkada (Kailali), Sikles-Kori (Kaski) and Ghantikhola-Swargadwari Temple in Pyuthan district.

Works are also afoot to start a cable car service in Pathivara Temple in Taplejung. Besides, private companies are conducting ropeway transport feasibility studies in Dakshinkali-Chaukhatdevi, Budhanilkantha-Shivapuri Hill and Bohoratar-Nagarjun Hill in Kathmandu; Godawari-Phulchowki Hill in Lalitpur; Ghorahi-Swargadwari Temple in Pyuthan; Ghyangphedi-Gosainkunda in Rasuwa; Lukla-Namche Bazar in Solukhumbu; Devghat-Moulakalika Temple in Chitwan; and Ranital-Maulakalika in Nawalparasi.

Nepal Investment Board is also facilitating the study for an 84-km cable car service from Birethanti-Kagbeni-Ranipauwa to Muktinath Temple in Mustang. If implemented, the project is expected to significantly boost tourism and improve the livelihood of local people. “Ropeways have the potential to alter the economy of Nepal as it can boost tourism, improving income-generation and employment opportunities,” says Delmon. “As Nepal has huge potential in hydropower, ropeways are highly feasible here.” “During the monsoon season, the rural road network which is around 4,500 km across the country gets impacted by the heavy rain, flood and landslides resulting in connectivity loss to the district headquarters for around one-fifth of the total population,” she adds.

Year 2022 marked the centenary of the start of the ropeway in Nepal. Renewable Energy Confederation of Nepal (RECON), Nepal Ropeway Association, and other relevant institutions had celebrated the 100 years by holding seminars on the importance, relevancy, and revival of ropeway technology in Nepal. They hoped these events would push the government authorities to rethink the revival of ropeway transport in Nepal, but to no avail.

The book ‘Ropeways in Nepal’ by Dipak Gyawali, Ajaya Dixit, and Madhukar Upadhya recounts many past success stories of Nepali ropeway projects, but the idea of developing ropeways to ease the problem of transporting goods and humans has simply not registered on the minds of the government officials and ministers. “The fact is the government officials and ministers do not get much commission from ropeway development unlike road projects,” says Gyawali, who is also a former water resource minister.

After the success of pioneering ropeway projects, the government incorporated plans and policies for improving and extending the existing ropeway services in the fifth Five-Year Plan. With grant assistance from the US government, the old 22-km long, low-capacity mono-cable system between Dhorsing and Kathmandu was replaced and extended with a 42-km-long bi-cable ropeway between Hetauda and Kathmandu.

The sixth Five-Year Plan proposed developing gravity ropeways in the hills and mountains to transport daily goods and Rs 6m was allocated to execute the plan, but nothing came of it. After the restoration of multi-party democracy in the 90s, the eighth Five-Year Plan incorporated ropeways under the sub-sector of ‘other modes of transport’ and announced a program for consolidating the existing ropeways and operating them at full capacity.

There was also the plan of encouraging the private sector for the development of short-haul ropeways to promote tourism as well as developing gravity ropeways. For these purposes, the government of the time allocated Rs 158m. The next national plan announced a more ambitious 20-year National Transport Master Plan that included a cable car/ropeway development program and privatization of ropeway transports so that they could be operated more effectively.

The approach paper of the 10th Five-Year Plan (2002-2007) again stated that policies for developing ropeway transportation would be adopted. It also set the aim of encouraging private entrepreneurs to construct and operate cable car/ropeways in places with importance for tourists and local economies where road access is lacking. Priority for cable car/ropeway development would be accorded to those areas where the cost of constructing and operating roads would be comparatively high.

Experts say though policies and modest-scale programs were incorporated in Nepal’s Five-Year Plans, the progress over the years have been slow. In fact, they add, the ropeway development plan has more or less remained stagnant since 2007. Its potential to become an important segment of the country’s transport system was not realized. Operation and maintenance head of Manakamana Cable Car, Nepal’s first human transport ropeway, Sunil Karmacharya says that Nepali market, these days, is more attracted to human transport ropeways than material transport. The Manakamana Cable Car has been in operation for 25 years now.

“Back then, there used to be around 500,000 passengers per year which now has around 1.1m passengers. However, I see lesser chances in mass carrying ropeways in Nepal,” he says these cable cars, if operated properly can be enough for mobility and transport.