Nepal-China Trans-border Railways

 

Lila Nyaichyai

 

Nepal has for long desired to be a ‘bridge’ between China and India, her immediate neighbours on the north and south respectively and two emerging powers in the world. But the wish is yet to be fulfilled. The wish of being a bridge has multiple connotations but here I am want to focus only on physical sense. For a landlocked country like Nepal, only a land link is possible and feasible. In a recent visit, Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli has made an agreement with China that Nepal will be linked to China from Tibet via a railroad. During his visit the joint statement between China and Nepal stated “the relevant authorities of both sides will exchange ideas and proposals on constructing cross-border railways and railways network in Nepal, and support enterprises to start related preparatory work as soon as possible”. The Qinghai-Tibet rail is expected to arrive at the Nepali border of Rasuwagadhi by 2020, which, if construction goes as scheduled, will be within four years. 

 

Possibility of trans-boarder rail link

For all intensive purposes, the Rasuwagadhi border point is at a reasonable distance from the capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu.  The Rasuwa district is quite a popular place from touristic point of view. This is also a route for some important religious pilgrimages. As it is not very densely populated, barren land is available and accessible for construction of the railway track and rail stations.  In addition, the ethnic communities that reside in the Rasuwa mountains and valleys are Sherpas whose culture and social norms are similar to that of Tibetans across the border. Some of the families emigrated from Tibet in the past. These are some of the favourable circumstances that prevail in the Rasuwa district that is proposed to link Nepal with the Chinese rail.

The 106 km long Pasang Lhamu Highway already connects Nepalese capital with China vial Galchi and Rasuwagadhi, setting a precedent for another link. Ancient history reveals that this road was in operation from the sixth century for trade between Tibet and Nepal. Kings in Kathamandu Valley traded with Tibet via this road to the west and with Kuti (Nyalam) to the east. In those days, Nepal exported food, silver, chili pepper, spices and garlic and imported wool, cloth, gold and salt. The existence and practice of a local barter system was very common. This is the same road from where the Chinese aid (petrol) was transported to Nepal when it suffered from fuel scarcity last year. In this context, the parliamentary Development Committee has proposed to upgrade the highway. Besides, the Betrawati-Mailun - Syaprubesi road, a 28 km section, runs along the Trisuli River bank. All these road connections suggest that building railroad along the Trisuli River bank in Nepal is a viable option.

Rasuwagadhi is also the point from where the distance to the border with India (Birgunj – Raxaul) is the shortest, only about 240 km. The Birgunj border point is Nepal’s most frequently used check point to India. Almost 70 per cent of all transactions between Nepal and India take place through this check point. So the shortest way to ‘bridge’ China and India is also through Nepal, via Rasuwagadhi to Birgunj railroad route. This ‘bridge’, as all bridges do, is meant to expand access for friendship, prosperity and cooperation into the future. The dream of Kathmandu to be a bridge between India and China is a dream that began centuries ago. Sanjaya Upadhya in his book Nepal and the Geo-strategic Rivalry between China and India has mentioned that in 1645-1650 AD Pratap Malla, the King of Kathmandu, was successful in striking this critical agreement: Tibet agreed to direct all the trade with India through Kathmandu Valley. The situation today is not the same, however, the connection through Nepal is still possible.

 

China, Nepal and India

One of the adjoining parts of India with Nepal is Bihar. Bihar is one of the most populated and least developed states of India. For Bihar, the connection to China through Nepal will also reduce long distance for trade. At present, Bihar can export to and import from China only via Calcutta port. If the rail connection is built, it will be extremely beneficial for India as well because it will create more export and import possibilities with Nepal and China. And it will, in particular, benefit the least developed area of Bihar, a cause for extra consideration and celebration. Hence, the railroad connection will not only bring better living conditions but trust, and friendship to the  people living in that part of the world and the basis for ongoing positive relations with China and Nepal as a whole.  It also links two of the ancient civilizations across the Himalayas and plays a vital role in building cultural bridges as well.

Although Nepal exists in between two bigger economies, Nepal’s economy is almost insignificant in the world and is not in a state to sustain itself.  While the railroad link is advantageous to its neighbouring countries, it is a necessity for Nepal in order to improve the economy, and is part of Nepal’s commitment to continuously look for ways to do so. Although the ruling parties and prime ministers in Nepal are continuously changing, the government can continue to work towards this goal as something that supersedes individuals and represents a stable government. The railroad is the greater goal of all of the people, and its benefits will outlast any current politics or policies.

Nepal also needs to keep its commitment to ‘One China policy’ and needs to clearly reassure China of its commitment. As such Nepal must be very sensitive to maintain Nepali territory as a neutral territory, not to be used against any country. Communication, and cross-border connectivity for development, prosperity and sustainability is the goal.

 

Challenges ahead

There are some challenges, particularly of geographical nature. Last year’s earthquake and its concomitant landslides resulted in comprehensive and extensive damages to Nepal’s infrastructure. But these challenges are not insurmountable if Nepal is firmly determined to build this railroad connection. Another challenge is both internal and external stakeholders’ sensitivity towards the mega infrastructure project. Unfortunately, due to oversensitivity some major projects were aborted before being concretely initiated. So the Nepali government must play a key role in bringing all the stakeholders into a consensus.

Development in transportation is one of the key demands of the people of Nepal; a key demand in the development of any country in a timely manner. A railroad from China will ensure the best use of resources to facilitate transportation of goods and people, which in turn facilitates and promotes good economic and cultural exchanges.  Nepal will be linked to the rest of the world via China. According to the 2016 agreement between Nepal and China, Nepal will get transit rights to the third country as well. It will be a new beginning for Nepal to have commercial relations with the world that will bring significant advantages to Nepal’s neighbours, India and China, as well. 

Nyaichyai is a PhD student at Yunnan University, China.

 

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