India’s land-locked neighbour Nepal is planning to commence railway construction linking capital city Kathmandu with India and China within two years, according to reports.
“The Detailed Project Reports of Birgunj-Kathmandu and Rasuwagadhi-Kathmandu railways, connecting Kathmandu to both India and China by railways, will be prepared, and construction works will be started within two years,” said President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, while reading out the government’s priorities for the coming years, on Friday, May 3, in parliament.
Presenting government’s policies and programmes for the fiscal 2019-20 at the federal parliamentary meeting, she further announced that the first trans-border railway between Nepal and India will be planned in the upcoming fiscal.
“Railway service will be made operational within the next fiscal at Jayanagar-Bijalpura and from Bathnaha, India, to Biratnagar. The construction of the railway at Bijalpura-Bardibas segment will be completed,” Bhandari is reported as saying on Friday, thereby highlighting the Himalayan nation’s dependence on India for its trade and transit.
The Nepal government has also said the completion of technical studies for the construction of railways linking both the neighbouring countries has been completed in collaboration with the two rival nations that share decades of animosity and frayed borders.
BRI and the Chinese factor
This comes a week after China hosted the second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation in Beijing, where the need to establish a trans-border railway link as part of the Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network was broached by Bhandari.
According to the Economic Times, China’s “indulgence” in Nepal, a close ally of India, is over a decade old now, but the recent revival of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Hydropower Project can prove to be pivotal, although not nearly as concerning as the recently finalised Trade and Transit Agreement that gives Nepal access to four of China’s seaports and three dry ports.
Nepal’s geographical considerations coupled with the Indian economic blockade of 2015 have long since signaled the need for diversification of trade routes, writes Gaurab Shumsher Thapa for Asia Times.
And if the deepening relations between China and Nepal at the BRI summit has shown anything, it is that Nepal is willing to play and win big with Beijing, despite threats of a debt trap.
The desire, in fact, is mutual because China too views connectivity as a crucial factor driving the Nepal-China BRI equation.
But who will fund this?
A feasibility study on extending the Qinghai-Tibet railway line (nearing completion) up to Kathmandu has pegged the cost of construction at $3 billion dollars and the completion time to be eight years. Sceptics have blamed China for roping many Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Pakistan into “debt diplomacy” with projects like these.
India is one of the dectrators. New Delhi has not agreed to be a part of BRI till date nor has it shown any sign of wanting to join the BRI anytime soon.
Even though that is holding up a few projects, like the CPEC, India’s distance owes much to the alarming rate at which Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean region is spreading. Many western nations are also suspicious of the true intentions of the BRI project in this regard.
The implications of an iron Silk Route
Nepal’s sensitive geopolitical neighbourhood, therefore, demands that it tread very carefully in its BRI journey. Several political analysts have already raised the alarm that it could be yet another Chinese manoeuvre in the region that India should be cautious of.
As China seems desperate to open as many ‘land bridges’ as possible into the Indian Ocean, this direct railway link into the Indian mainland with the help of Nepal gives the idea of the Silk Route a new spin.
Also read: The India-China map saga, explained
Whether or not this will finally rope India into the Belt and Road Initiative, the strategic and security implications of Bhandari’s pet project should not be downplayed in favour of the glamourous Chinese-led globalisation, or Nepal’s possibly bright prospects, once the link is established.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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