If we had to do it all over again, and somehow we could go back to 1952 to plan Nepal's future, what would we do differently?
Harnessing hydroelectricity for transportation would be high on the list. From very early on, international and Nepali experts pointed out the simple wisdom of using the energy of falling water to run trains, trolley buses, trams and cable cars. Yet, we took the wrong turn back in the 1950s, and never really corrected that mistake. As a result, a country with abundant renewable energy is now cripplingly dependent on imported fuel, a business that is run by an entrenched adulteration mafia.
It's not that roads are not needed, but we were never serious about exploring a multi-modal transportation network more suited for Nepal's topographic and socio-economic reality. An ideal plan would have been an east-west railway artery along the tarai, linked to north-south highways to follow Himalayan rivers, which are in turn connected to ridge-top district towns by ropeway systems.
A new book to be released this weekend, Ropeways in Nepal, explores that third part: the past, present and future of traditional ghirlings, cargo ropeways and passenger cable cars. The book starts with a chapter by Toni Hagen, one of the early proponents of ropeways in Nepal, about how Nepal can learn to organise a multi-modal transport network as in his native Switzerland.
The other chapters analyse why early projects worked brilliantly, why long-range ropeways built later failed despite potential and includes case studies of several rural ropeways that transformed people's lives. The book draws lessons for the future development of ropeways in Nepal, building on the experiences of the government-run Hetauda-Kathmandu Nepal Ropeway, Bhattedanda Milkway, Barpak Ropeway and the immensely successful privately-run Manakamana Cable Car.
Editors Dipak Gyawali, Ajaya Dixit and Madhukar Upadhya conclude that the 'sins of unsustainability' were built-in into some of the ropeway projects. They propose a gaun-besi ropeway system to link hill towns to roadheads in the valleys below. 'These ropeways, if properly planned, enable villagers to take advantage of the market, rather than the other way around.they do not replace roads, but exploit them more fully to increase traffic to and from remote hamlets,' argue Gyawali and Dixit in the concluding chapter.
Indeed, calculations show that ropeways usually cost half as much as mountain highways per km to build, and are more than 20 times cheaper to maintain. It appears Nepal's Rana rulers were much more visionary about the potential for ropeways than our contemporary rulers. It was Chandra Shumshere who installed a 22 km cargo ropeway between Dhorsing and Kathmandu in 1924 (see p10-11), although he appears to have preferred ropeways in order to retain Kathmandu Valley's strategic inaccessibility from the Indian plains.
It took another 40 years for Nepal's second ropeway to be set up, and this time we needed the Americans to build it for us. The 42km Hetauda-Kathmandu Nepal Ropeway cost half as much as the Tribhuban Highway on the same route to build. The government-run ropeway and the private trucks on the highway were bitter rivals, and in the end, the highway won. In 1964, when Nepal Ropeway went into operation, it pulled so much electricity from the grid that Kathmandu Valley's lights dimmed when it was running.
But government apathy, mismanagement and neglect took their toll. The ropeway was never used to more than half its capacity northbound, and the cars always headed back to Hetauda empty. Although it showed its brilliant potential during the Indian blockade in 1988-89 and when landslides washed off both Tribhuban and Mugling highways in 1993, Nepal Ropeway was finally closed down in 2001.
Since then, there have been numerous feasibility studies by the UN and others for long ropeways, to revive and privatise the Hetauda Ropeway, and to build cable cars for tourist areas like Namche and Hatiban. But the grandiose dreams remained dreams, while local initiative and expertise knew the ropeway's true potential for grassroots development.
Ropeways in Nepal examines in detail two of these bold experiments, created up by pioneers who dared to think outside the envelope such as Bir Bahadur Ghale of Barpak in Gorkha and Madhukar Upadhya from Bhatte Danda in Lalitpur.
Bir Bahadur ran a micro-hydro business selling power to his picturesque native village, a three-day walk north of Gorkha. But he could never break even because he could only sell power at night and his plant lay idle in the daytime. Then, while on a trip to Hong Kong, Bir Bahadur saw a cable car and got the idea of using his electricity to power a ropeway to carry goods from the valley up to Barpak.
When it was finally built with a grant from the British Embassy in 1998, the ropeway slashed portering time and brought down the cost of essentials in the market. The ropeway was so popular that passengers rode the cars even when repeatedly warned not to do so. A tragic accident killed four illegal riders two years ago and a few months later a flash flood on the Daraundi washed away the base station. Bir Bahadur has learnt his lesson and is rebuilding his ropeway.
Madhukar Upadhya worked on a TU project in south Lalitpur where dairy farmers suffered because they couldn't take their milk to market. To preserve the milk, they boiled it down to khuwa or ghiu, decimating the surrounding forests in the process. The Bhatte Danda Milkway enabled farmers to take the milk quickly to the roadhead and on to Kathmandu, considerably enhancing their income. But a village faction influenced by the truck lobby on the Kanti Highway, which lost business, forced the ropeway to close.
However, when rains washed off portions of the highway in 2002 and the milk started to spoil, villagers vowed never to stop the ropeway again. Says Upadhya, 'In response to collective constraints, individuals in a community innovate and put aside differences during times of crisis.' Indeed, the political economy of south Lalitpur before the ropeway was interesting. Farmers living near the roadhead who could sell fresh milk got the most value for their product and were mainly Congress supporters. Those in the first valley where milk had to boiled down to khuwa and ghiu tended to be UML and in the farthest valley where there was no market for milk products, the peasants were Maoist supporters even back then.
The conclusion of Ropeways in Nepal is that the best way forward for Nepal is to shun long-distance multi-stage ropeways and go for an 'arranged marriage' of micro-hydro projects with the capabilities of the suspension bridge industry. These are two sectors in which Nepal has amassed a lot of indigenous expertise, and can be the building blocks of a network of gaun-besi ropeways to empower villages with access to markets, lessen drudgery for inhabitants and reduce the environmental and economic risks that roads bring.
Gyawali and Dixit have even worked out a plan to pay for almost 50 gaun-besi ropeways a year, with a fund created by a one percent tax on diesel, petrol and LPG. It is hard to see how this plan can go wrong, provided there is vision and political will among our rulers.
Ropeways in Nepal
Dipak Gyawali, Ajaya dixit, Madhukar Upadhya (eds)
Nepal Water Conservation Foundation (NWCF)
and Kathmandu Electric Vehicle Alliance (KEVA), 2004
Book launch with discussion 'Nepal's Other Transport Future' at Hotel Shankar on Sunday, 15 August.
NWCF: 01-5528111, KEVA: 01-4467087