Trans-Himalayan Railway, Fiction or Feasibility ?
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
The social media are agog with the news about the departure of an international freight train from Lanzhao the capital city of Gansu Province of China for Shigatse. The train is said to have been loaded with goods meant to be hauled from Sigatse to Kathmandu via surface road. Though no official confirmation has been received about this as yet, this has come as a media sensation with some private TV channels also broadcasting the news with considerable weightage.
For many observers, this event, even if true, may not carry more than a symbolic significance in view of the lack of proper infrastructure on the Nepalese side of the international border but for the Nepalese people who are just coming back to normal state after five months-long agonizing Indian blockade and the Madhesi agitation, it is being taken as a dream coming alive.
Potent transport life line
When an understanding was signed in March 2016 during Prime Minister KP Oli’s visit to China on carrying out feasibility survey for a railway connectivity between the Tibetan border town of Keyirong and Kathmandu with its possible extension to Pokhara and Lumbini, critics had derided it as a joke but the seriousness with which the Chinese government has taken to Qinghai-Tibetan Railway’s extension to Nepal’s border as a potent transport lifeline with a potential for connecting China with South Asia, the trans-Himalayan Railway appears to have come very near reality.
Skepticism about and negative portrayal of grandiose looking projects is human kind’s first response. When Karakoram Highway was conceived and was started to be built in 1959, the skeptics had said that it was an impossible proposition but when it was actually completed in 1979 and was ready for traffic, it was globally hailed as an ‘eighth wonder’. The Karakoram High way links the City of Abbotabad of Pakistan with Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and constitutes a strategic and commercial lifeline of both the countries. The Highway passes through the Khunjerab Pass located at an altitude of 4,693.
When the Chinese government first conceived Qinghai-Tibet Railway project the same kind of disbelief was expressed. But it exists as an engineering marvel of the world today. This is the highest elevation railway ever built in the world rising to 5,072 meters to cross Tanggula Pass. Initially, China had conceived the construction of this railway as a means to promote economic prosperity in Tibet and bring the people of remote pastureland closer to the mainland. Upon completion, in addition to its being useful as a vehicle of socio-economic transformation of Tibet, it has also opened up the possibility of serving as a transport artery linking two great land masses of Central and South Asia through Nepal.
The extension of the Chinese railway system is not the dream of the Nepalese only. The Chinese government has also been showing interest in improving operational facility at Keyirong as a cross border economic cooperation zone between China and Nepal with a long term hope of using it for promoting trade with South-Asia.
After the railway reached Lhasa and Sighatse, the extension of this railway line to Nepal’s border has become the priority of the Chinese government. Nepalese side had requested the Chinese Government in 2008 to consider the possibility of extending the railway up to the Nepalese border when it was still under the construction phase. It is heartening to know that the railway is scheduled to reach Keyirong in 2020. The news about the operation of international freight railway service should, therefore, be taken in this perspective. Irrespective of whether the news on social media on the operation of Chinese railway service are true or not, it is possible that the Chinese authorities are making a trial run pending fully-fledged railway extension first to Keyirong and then to Nepal’s border town of Rasuwagadi.
Some opinion makers in Nepal have been looking at the discourse on the tran-Himalayan railway connectivity as an act of whipping up a shallow nationalism saying that it will augment trade imbalance, forfeit the Nepalese of the opportunity of benefiting from support from our traditional ally India and that it would exacerbate already strained relation with India. These opinions, however, are either sponsored or emanate from the ignorance about the global dynamics of unstemabale transport and communications connectivity.
Anyone who is watching the economic miracle achieved by China should be aware of the fact that the expansion of road, railway and maritime connectivity being emphasized by China is the result of unprecedented economic growth which it has achieved during the past three decades . In order to sustain the present level of growth, China needs to invest in the expansion of infrastructures of its neighbouring countries which could offer themselves as good markets for its products. To achieve that goal China has been implementing ‘One Road, One Belt’ policy whose central focus remains to revive the ancient Silk Road that passed through Central Asia, West Asia and the Middle East to reach Europe. At the same time China is also pushing a maritime road that could link different Chinese ports with the African coast and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway has emerged as a parallel project for connecting South Asian countries like Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Bhutan. If materialized, this railway will open a new paradigm for development not only for backward regions like Autonomous Region of Tibet and Nepal but also many less developed areas such as Bihar, UP and Uttarakhand of India which are far away from Indian coastal port cities. For weak countries like Nepal and Bhutan it will create solid physical condition for the safeguard of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence freeing them from the geo-political situation of perpetual dependence on India.
The Indian media are projecting this new possibility of railway connectivity with China as the expansion of China’s strategic control bringing direct security threat to India. But these arguments sound feeble and far-fetched especially in the context when China is eager to seek space for collaboration with India leaving behind all the bitter moments of the past.
Hence, the trans-Himalayan railway network is likely to enhance the trade activities among China and other countries of South Asia. When the Chinese railway lines are extended to Nepal’s border by 2020, the historical commercial engagement of Nepal and China will have been lifted onto a qualitatively different level where Nepal will have an alternative transit assess to sea.
The importance and indispensability of this railway route is also emphasized by the fact that it is 35 days quicker in bringing Chinese goods than doing so via sea route. The less time taken means reduction in cost also. That is likely to make products imported through railway cheaper and more readily available in Nepal and Northern provinces of India. The railway connectivity will also surely contribute in augmenting and diversifying our export, gain larger access to markets for consumer goods. At humanitarian level, the two largest economic power of Asia could come closer, collaborate for the economic prosperity and forge peaceful coexistence.
Quagmire of poverty
The news about the freight train service from Lanzhao to Sighatse carries more than a symbolic meaning. From the technological marvel to be admired from distance, the trans-Himalayan Railway is transforming itself into a new frontier of technological advancement, which could help us to extricate our nation from the quagmire of poverty and dependence. A new day is about to dawn for us. Much will depend on whether or not we will be able to rise to the occasion to enhance our capacity for reaping benefit from the great changes that are sweeping across the Himalayan plateaus.