The Talk Of Kerung-Kathmandu Railway
A 23-member technical as well as administrative team of National Railway Administration of China, led by its vice minister Zheng Jian, recently conducted a four-day overall field study of the much talked about Kyirong-Kathmandu and Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railways. The Chinese team came up with the estimate construction cost for the Kyirong-Kathmandu railway, which is estimated to be 2.75 billion US dollars. It is the first time that the estimate cost has been calculated by a Chinese team. Nepal has already conducted the feasibility study of Kathmandu-Pokhara railway and the cost estimate is about 3 billion USD. Similarly, feasibility study has also been conducted to construct linking railway from Aabukhaireni of Gorkha district to Bharatpur of Chitwan so that both Kathmandu and Pokhara are also linked with the Mechi-Mahakali or the east-west railway.
The talk about linking Nepal with Chinese railway network has been going on for nearly a decade since former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ chose China for his maiden foreign visit as the head of the government in 2008 and proposed with Chinese leaders to make Nepal a ‘dynamic bridge’ between China and India. Then, it had been only two years that Tibet was linked with national rail network of China, and he did talk about possibility of extending the railway to Nepal. Ever since, the railway talks have been underway in each visit of the Nepalese leaders to China or visits of Chinese leaders to Nepal.
During former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to China in 2015, some concrete steps were taken in this regard through the bilateral agreement between China and Nepal. Hope about this railway ran high again when Nepal joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in April this year signing a framework agreement. When Chinese vice-premier Wang Yang visited Nepal in August this year, fresh commitments from both sides were made to extend the railway. In his visit to China in September this year, then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, also talked about the issue with Chinese leaders including Premier Li Keqiang. In the joint press meet after the bilateral talks with Mahara, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi then also pointed out the possibility of China-Nepal-India economic corridor by means of the Nepal-China railway. And now Chinese ‘technical’ team has made a cost estimate and said the railway construction is possible.
Obviously, there has been much talk and for long. In their election manifestos for the upcoming federal parliament and provincial assemblies’ elections, both the left alliance and the Nepali Congress, the party that leads the democratic alliance, have highlighted Nepal-China railway. This proves major political parties, which had two-thirds majority in the erstwhile Constituent Assembly (CA) which later also functioned as parliament, are one with regard to building the Kyirong-Kathmandu railway. According to commitments made in the election manifestos, the left alliance wants to build railway between Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu and China’s bordering town Kyirong within five years while Nepali Congress wants to build the railway within ten years. “Railway will be constructed so as to develop Nepal as a transit bridge between China and India. A master plan to complete the construction of railway from Chinese border to Kathmandu then to Indian border within next ten years will formulated,” reads the NC’s election manifesto.
What these major parties have committed in the election manifesto with regard to railway construction is perfectly consistent with Nepal’s 20-year plan for railway development. This long term plan also puts emphasis on linking Nepal with Chinese railway. According to the vision, some 4,000 km of railway will be built within next 20 years, at least 750 km in the first five years and 1,500 in a period of ten years. However, it is an irony, four years have elapsed since the business plan was adopted, but nothing much has been done so far. Perhaps due to lack of political will and necessary allocation of budget, the Department of Railway has been helpless to meet its target. But then, carrying out of feasibility study of some railways and initiating construction process including having a detailed engineering survey and design conducted of the Mechi-Mahakali railway are noteworthy.
A big question mark emerges as to why the political parties that have been emphasing now on Kyirong-Kathmandu railway did not have any feasibility study conducted so far although they were/are in the government. Why they neglected it. Reports even say that when China initiated extending railway line from Tibet’s second largest city of Shigatse to Kyirong, some 540 km long railway, with a view to extending the railway to Nepal border, in 2015, as per Nepal’s willingness to link Kathmandu with Kyirong. The Shigatse-Kyirong railway is planned to be complete by 2020. But not even feasibility study has been conducted to build railway between Kathmandu and Kyirong.
Many experts attribute the delay in initiating concrete step to build this railway to lack of political will and a mentality on the political leadership to seek construction through assistance. Yes, the begging mindset with regard to investment for the railway may have been a hindrance. It is understandable Nepal has huge trade deficit with China. It is also understandable Nepal lacks necessary investment fund for the railway.
But it does not mean Nepal cannot take loan for what the political parties have termed this railway ‘a national priority project.’ It can be built as a BRI project seeking investment from the AIIB, Silk Road Fund, New Development Bank and other international financial institutions. Moreover, Nepal and China can also emulate the project financing model such as the one adopted by India and Japan in the construction of Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed railway. Of the total estimate cost of 17 billion USD, Japan is providing India 80 per cent of the cost, over 14 billion USD, at 0.1 per cent interest rate and the repayment period is over 50 years. And there can be many other options for investment.
To make Nepal a mid-income country by increasing economy by four fold or to attract over 3 million tourists annually within ten years as pledged by NC in its manifesto, and for many other reasons that include trade diversification, Kyirong-Kathmandu railway is vital. What needs to be done is walk the talk, take action for promises. For the time being, mobilising the two mechanisms, one led by foreign secretary and the other led by finance secretary, formed in June to work for operating Belt and Road projects is crucial so the mechanisms also come up with plans to build the railway under the BR project before the Nepali railway officials visit China for further discussion within a month.