A new journey for India and Nepal

Raghu Dayal | Updated on May 17, 2018

Tracks to progress: Connecting the neighbourhood   -  Reuters

The Raxaul-Kathmandu rail link has the potential of having a ‘transformational impact’ on the region

During the just-concluded visit to Nepal, termed “historic” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, he and his host, Nepalese Premier KP Sharma Oli, reiterated their resolve to effectively implement the bilateral initiatives proposed during Prime Minister Oli’s recent visit to India, including in “agriculture, railway linkages and inland waterways development”.

As the India-Nepal joint statement issued during Oli’s visit signified India’s belated bold initiative to impart the requisite verve and vigour to the avowed ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, the two sides specially emphasised the “catalytic role of connectivity”. With cross-border connectivity being a crucial factor to “enhance people-to-people linkages and promote economic growth and development”, the two leaders lent a renewed dynamism to several infrastructural schemes and projects.

Game changer

The two Prime Ministers jointly inaugurated an integrated check post at Birgunj in Nepal to facilitate cross-border movement of people and cargo, did the ground-breaking of the Motihari-Amlekhgunj pipeline done for petroleum supplies from India to Nepal, and also scripted a “landmark decision” to develop “cost-efficient”, economical movement of cargo through inland waterways, besides providing sea-connectivity to landlocked Nepal.

The two Prime Ministers pledging for a time-bound bilateral rail connectivity projects is indeed a game-changer. Probably the most momentous project ever contemplated by India for its close neighbour was the joint pronouncement “to construct a new electrified rail line, with India’s financial support”, to connect Raxaul to Kathmandu, for which a preparatory survey will be conducted within one year.

Further, while assuring that Phase I cross-border rail lines (Jayanagar-Janakpur/Kurtha and Jogbani-Biratnagar) will be completed in 2018, the ongoing final location survey for the three additional rail links (New Jalpaiguri-Kakarbitta, Nautanwa-Bhairahwa, and Nepalgunj Road-Nepalgunj) will also be expedited.

Isn’t it ironic that Indian governments have for long remained impervious to the suggestions to forestall China by linking Indian rail network to Kathmandu, and think brave and bold even to go beyond, to join the rail line in Tibet, facilitating rail journey from Rameswaram to Mansarovar? Prime Minister Oli on a visit to China requested his hosts for the Beijing-Golmud-Lhasa rail line to be extended into Nepal. While legitimately raising a red flag on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India could propose an alternative trilateral economic corridor along the proposed Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line, if the dragon and the elephant do decide to do the tango.

Instead of whining about China’s bid to extend its rail network to Kathmandu, India could well deliberate with Nepal, which had recommended over 10 years ago a rail line to be built, connecting Birgunj with Kathmandu at the then estimated cost of NRs 2,965 crore.

A techno-economic survey done in 2006, at the instance of Nepal's Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, recommended a 174-km long 1,676-mm (akin to India’s broad gauge), electrified rail line along Kathmandu-Thingari-Kaveri-Hetuada-Pyramidi-Amlekgunj -Pathlauja-Birgunj.

Given its asymmetric responsibility, it is up to India to push the process of regional integration forward. As an unavoidable fact of geography, India commands the centre-stage in South Asia, with 51 per cent of the region’s surface area, 71 per cent of population, and 40 per cent of GDP. Most of its neighbours share borders not only with India, but also in most cases with one more country in the region. They perforce depend on India for region-wide connectivity.

All around India, China shares land borders with five SAARC countries, looks over the Chicken’s Neck at a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. China has for long wanted to fill the South Asian space that nature gifted to India. China views Nepal and Pakistan to be critically important for its security and territorial integrity in Xinjiang and Tibet. It is busy building a web of road and rail links, also ‘String of Pearls’ in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Its formidable presence in terms of rail projects in India’s north is typified by the world’s highest 1,142-km Golmud-Lhasa rail line, opened in July 2006, now extended westward by a 252-km link to Xigaze, Tibet’s second largest city, and due to have a further 400-km extension not only to Nyalam, on the border with Nepal, and a further 120-km link to Kathmandu, but also to Dromo, close to Bhutan and Sikkim, and yet further on to Nyingchi on the doorsteps of Arunachal Pradesh.

India’s bureaucratic sloth

What particularly irks India’s neighbours is its propensity to habitually dither with regard to implementing even minor projects. India doesn’t deliver on promises made even at the highest levels.

Take, for example, the 15-km missing rail link between Agartala on the Indian side and Akhaura rail-head in Bangladesh, that has been languishing since Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina graciously responded to India’s long-pending request for its construction during her visit in January 2010. Likewise, Myanmar is the only ASEAN country sharing a land border with India. For long, India has talked of improving road and rail connections and a new port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast, but its slothful energies have generated wariness.

In sharp contrast, China comes across as a Plutus or a Croesus strewing gold to entice India’s ring of neighbours. That India doesn’t have deep pockets is understandable; what is inexcusable is its bureaucratic sloth and inertia.

Now that India has shown rare vision and courage to proceed towards building the Raxaul-Kathmandu rail link, it should seize the occasion to build its self-confidence and among its neighbours by completing the project in record time much like its railway engineers built a similar length Assam Rail Link in less than two years 60 years ago. Remember the tools and technology then available were primitive and rudimentary compared to the advanced modern day equipment and systems now available to engineers.

The writer is a former CMD of Concor

Published on May 17, 2018

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