Interview with Niraj Manandhar, Geomatics Engineer and Chief Survey Officer, Government of Nepal

Interview with Niraj Manandhar, M.Sc., M.E.
Geomatics Engineer and Chief Survey Officer
Survey Department, Geodetic Survey Branch, Government of Nepal
Interview by John Wilusz in April 2010

In April I spent two weeks in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Several days into my trip I visited Swayambhu, also known as the Monkey Temple, which is located on a hill on the west side of the city. Swayambhu’s ancient and beautiful religious iconography make it a popular tourist destination. While strolling about the temple grounds I was surprised to see surveyors at work. Naturally I couldn’t resist making contact and thereby met Niraj Manandhar, Chief Survey Officer, Geodetic Survey Branch, Government of Nepal. Ironically, I was hoping to meet and interview a Nepali surveyor during my visit, but I didn’t expect that finding one would be so easy. Lucky for me Niraj spoke English and was patient and obliging. We spoke at Swayambhu and then again several days later at his office in downtown Kathmandu. Following is my interview with him.

JW: “What inspired you to become a surveyor?”

NM: “That’s a very nice question, but also a little bit difficult for me to answer. I have been interested in maps since I was very young, so it is a logical career choice in that sense. However, my first master’s degree was in “Statistics”. At the time I did not know where that training would be applied. Later, I had the opportunity to work in the Survey Department of Nepal and was able to use my knowledge of statistics there. Eventually I had an opportunity to study more in surveying, and earned my Master of Engineering from the School of Geomatics Engineering at the University of New South Wales, in Australia. The topic of my thesis was Geoid Studies for Nepal. And now it is 26 years that I have been in this profession.”

Mission of the Geodetic Survey Branch
JW: “What is the mission of the Geodetic Survey Branch (GSB)?”

NM: “In 1964 the government of Nepal decided to begin a systematic cadastral survey of the country, and in order to conduct this work it needed a geodetic control. Therefore the GSB was established to meet the objectives of cadastral mapping. The GSB established a first-order national network in the country in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense, United Kingdom (MODUK), and it is on this control that all the mapping activities are based. We began densification of the control points required for cadastral mapping within the national first-order network using triangulation based on the Everest spheroid of 1830. Then in the early 1990’s we started using GPS, which is based on WGS 84. Today we have been encountering some difficulties with the transformation between the two coordinate systems. We have been solving these problems using local transformations in certain areas. But this is creating some distortions with our cadastral mapping, and other mapping work as well. We are trying to bring homogeneity in the survey work within the country.

For that we need to develop one set of national parameters for the transformation from one system to another i.e, from the Everest spheroid 1830 to WGS 84 and vice versa. We need to have one precise national transformation that will be uniform all over the country. The first-order control net consists of 68 points based on the Everest spheroid. GSB has been re-observing this station using the Global Positioning System. Due to the difficulty of the terrain, lack of funding and lack of skilled manpower the project has been divided into three fiscal years. For this it would be helpful to have assistance from some good institutes, for the processing work and also for the knowledge to cope with the problems in general.

We finished the cadastral mapping in 1997, although we still have some areas that do not have adequate geodetic control. These are areas that were mapped before 1964. So we plan to extend the national network into these areas as resources become available. Most of our cadastral mapping is based on what we call a modified Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) system. The conventional UTM belt is 6 degrees, from one central meridian to another. To minimize distortion we use a 3-degree belt, 1.5 degrees east and 1.5 degrees west of the central meridian.”

JW: “How many people work at the GSB?”

NM: “We have 105 people working in different districts. In this office in Kathmandu we have 40 to 50 people. The number of people working in the field at any given time depends on the type of projects and workload.”

JW: “How is the GSB funded? Is it through tax money?”

NM: “Yes. Our projects are funded by the Nepal government. The Funds are provided by the revenue generated from the people. But sometimes different government and non-government organizations request our services, and they will pay for the work out of their own budgets.”

JW: “Do you have any female surveyors in the GSB?”

NM: “We have two, but the recruiting process is on, so in the near future we hope to have more.”

Challenges, Training and Forced Retirement
JW: “What are some of your other challenges, besides the transformation issues with the national control network?”

NM: “One of our biggest challenges right now is that we are lacking in human resources; we have a very limited number of qualified people in the field of geodesy. Last year the government of Nepal launched a scheme of forced retirement program for those with more than 20 years of service, so most of our surveyors have retired from government jobs, and they are just sitting idle. Now we are lacking skilled workers in the organization, because most of the skilled people went away with the forced retirement.”

JW: Do you have in-house training programs to deal with this?

NM: “Yes. We have a survey training center within our ministry: the Land Management Training Center (LMTC). We train newcomers in the specialized skills that are required for the organization. Now, for example, we are lacking surveyors who know how to do precise leveling. That’s because many experienced people left in the forced retirement, and some in regular retirement, from the precise leveling work section last year. We have very few young qualified people to do this task. So in this fiscal year we launched a training program of precise leveling for people who want to learn how to do this type of work. But not so many people are interested in the precise leveling because it does not pay very well. People can make more money and find more opportunities in GIS and other mapping fields.”

Other tasks besides mapping
JW: “Besides the mapping, what other kinds of projects does the GSB get involved with?”

NM: “Since we are getting caught up with our responsibilities toward the cadastral mapping, we have been more involved in providing precise control for infrastructure development. For example, we provide geodetic control for large hydropower projects being built in Nepal. One interesting project that we have supported recently is the Melamchi Water Supply Project. This project includes a 26.5 km long diversion tunnel and will bring 170 million liters of water per day to Kathmandu Valley. The GSP provided geodetic survey control for construction.

We also do surveys to monitor ground movement and measure its impact on important national infrastructures. One such project is at Narayani Bridge, which joins Nawalparasi and Chitwan in the central part of the country. We are also doing deformation studies throughout Nepal, like the one at Swayambhu Temple where we me
t. And we provide precise GPS control, astronomic observations, and magnetic deflections to the civil aviation authorities for their use in air traffic control. Similarly, other governmental departments approach us for geodetic controls for various purposes and we provide them as needed.”

Deformation Studies
JW: “So, Swayambhu is not the only place you are surveying for the deformation study.”

NM: “That is correct. Actually we are planning for deformation studies throughout the country as a major project. But in that case we are lacking in the instruments, we are lacking in the human resources, technical know-how, lots of things. To do this work we need many continuously operating GPS stations along the longitudinal section of the country. Then we can collect data from that region and observe the rate of change of horizontal distances, heights, and so forth. From that we can predict future movement. Nepal is geologically active, and these studies may have the potential for helping predict seismic activity. In some areas the rate of change is very high. In the Tatopani area, for example, the ground is rising in elevation by 3 or 4 centimeters per year. There you can find huge rocks that have obvious deformation patterns in them. Another seismically active area we would like to study is along the Kali Gandaki River gorge.”

JW: “Do you need resources from outside the country for the deformation studies?”

NM: “Definitely. Besides money we need training and education. We need help setting up the continuously operating GPS stations and relating these stations to the global network. We also need help processing the data. We would be very grateful to find interested, qualified people outside of Nepal to join us in this task. In a sense the Himalayas are not only the property of Nepal; they are the property of the world. What we learn by monitoring and studying in this region can have global applications. If we could do these things here I think we would be serving science and the global community.”

Geoid Modeling
JW: “What is the elevation of Mount Everest?”

NM: “The height that we have been accepting officially is 8,848 meters. That is the elevation established by the Survey of India in 1955. In 1999 the National Geographic Society, in the United States, began supporting a new height of 8,850 meters, measured by GPS. When I read the report it said the figure is +/- 2 meters, but that elevation is not based on an accurate geoid model, and so we cannot say what is the exact orthometric height of the mountain. The geoid in this area, and in Nepal in general, has not been precisely defined yet because we do not have sufficient gravity measurements. Defining the precise geoid is another important focus of the GSB. “

JW: “Are you in the process of doing this work now?”

NM: “We are, but I cannot tell you the exact time that we will be able to complete the geoid modeling. We have been planning for this work since ten years back, and there have been many difficulties along the way. It is hard to find donors for this type of geodetic work because the result is not visible. However, at the international level this project has a very important role. For that reason, the International Association of Geodesy (IAG) and the International Gravity Field Service (IGFS), have a strong interest to map the most rugged gravity field on the planet, which is the Himalayan region of Nepal, in order to improve new global geopotential models such as EGM08, and to supplement new gravity field satellite missions such as GRACE and GOCE. With the combination of satellite and airborne gravity field measurements, geoid models with an accuracy better than 5- 10 cm can be achieved. This will provide the basis for height measurements and substitute the conventional leveling.

In 2009 we entered into an agreement with National Space Institute, Technical University of Denmark. So we are working jointly with the Danish team. The United States and Denmark are working together in similar projects and are interested in this project because it will contribute toward a global gravity model. And we are interested because we want to have a precise geoid of this region. So these are the two things we are brought together. We planned to begin the airborne gravity survey in March of 2010, but we had logistical problems with the equipment. Now our plan is to begin the survey in this coming November 2010. I think it will take about a year to complete the project once we get started.
I was hoping to use this project for my Ph.D., but have not been able to find the funding for my study. Rene Forsberg, project manager and State Geodesist of Denmark, suggested to me that I enroll in Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu for the Ph.D., and find the funding later. But so far this is not working well. Geodesy is not taught in Tribhuvan University, and there is still no funding source. So we are still looking for a university that would provide funding, or would like to enroll me in that university, so that we can work on this project.”

Institution of Chartered Surveyors
JW: “Are there professional licensure requirements for surveyors in Nepal?”

NM: “Licensure is not mandatory but our goal is to change that. And we hope to achieve that goal through a new organization, the Institution of Chartered Surveyors, of which I am a member. The Institution of Chartered Surveyors is a professional association advocating for surveyors in Nepal. It was officially registered with the government in 2008, and is now also recognized by FIG, the International Federation of Surveyors. Among other things, the Institution has published ethical principles and a professional code of conduct for surveyors. It is the position of the Institution that surveyors must be chartered, or licensed, in order to practice professionally. That is the position that we recommend to the government, but we have not yet been able to make the licensing mandatory. To become a chartered surveyor in the Institution one must have 10 years experience, be a graduate of a surveying curriculum, and pass an examination. These are the basic requirements, and they are what we are recommending for licensure by the government. The first examination was conducted by the Survey Department itself, and today we have 27 chartered surveyors in Nepal. I am one of them.

Several issues need to be resolved regarding our professional status. For one thing, we believe the chartered surveyors should be able to do the cadastral work that the government itself is doing now. Today all mapping activities are conducted by the government only, and the private sector is excluded. We would like to change that. Among our members are surveyors very much skilled in precise leveling, precise control, GPS, GIS, and other works. We are looking to provide good jobs for them as well as provide quality work for the Nepali people. But there is some reluctance to change on the part of the government. Also we have some resistance from the civil engineers. For example, right now surveyors are not eligible to do land valuation; that work is conducted by civil engineers and chartered accountants. It is lucrative work and the engineers do not want to give it up. But actually the authority to do this work ought to belong to the surveyors, not the civil engineers. That is what the Institution is proposing in the definition of professional practice. And that is a problem because the civil engineers do not want us to come into the field. So they have been applying pressure to the government from their side. These are some of the challenges we are facing with licensure.

The Institution of Chartered Surveyors is very new, and we would like to build relationships with similar inst
itutions in the international community. We are just now planning to design a website. We are going to include interactive programs, trainings, and many other things. We would be happy to share information about our activities and projects, and we look forward to working with our surveying colleagues from around the world.”

Photos by John Wilusz.

John Wilusz is a Water Resources Engineer with the California Department of Water Resources. He can be reached at:

Niraj Manandhar can be reached at: