India, Nepal get closer with proposed new cross-border rail link

New Delhi: India will build a strategic railway link between Raxaul in Bihar and Kathmandu in Nepal to enhance people-to-people contact and allow bulk cargo movement with the landlocked neighbour.

The announcement was made after delegation-level talks between Indian and Nepalese officials chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart K.P. Sharma Oli, who is on a three-day visit to India.

An official statement said the the two Prime Ministers agreed to construct the new electrified rail line, “with India’s financial support”, connecting the border city of Raxaul in India to Kathmandu in Nepal.

The objective, it said, is to expand “connectivity” between the two neighbours and “enhance people-to-people linkages and promote economic growth and development”.

The proposal is significant and comes nearly two years after China in March 2016 agreed to construct a strategic railway link with Nepal through Tibet to reduce the Kathmandu’s total dependence on India.

That year China also signed a transit trade treaty with Nepal that completely depends on Indian sea ports for third-country trade.

Apart from this, China is also building three highways connecting Nepal and these roads are expected to be ready by 2020.

The Nepal-China agreements came at a time when Kathmandu-New Delhi ties started soaring after a border blockade in 2015-16.

Many in Kathmandu blamed India for the 135-day blockade from September, 2015 to February, 2016 that crippled Nepal’s economy.

China expanding its strategic base in Nepal sparked concerns in India that it was losing its foothold in its immediate backyard despite its “neighbourhood first” policy.

But an agreement on the proposed Raxaul-Kathmandu railway link indicates a new India-Nepal bonhomie.

As a first step towards building the railway connectivity, the two sides agreed that India in consultation with Nepal will carry out preparatory survey work within one year.

This will be followed by the finalization of the implementation and funding modalities of the project based on its detailed project report.

Oli assured that “Nepal will extend full cooperation for early completion of the requisite surveys for the new rail line”.

However, this is not the first railway project the two neighbours have agreed on.

They are already building a stretch of railway lines from Jayanagar to Janakpur and from Jogbani to Biratnagar which is expected to be completed this year.

There are three other railway projects in the pipeline — New Jalpaiguri-Kakarbhitta, Nautanwa-Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj Road-Nepalgunj.

Prime Ministers Modi and Oli also recognised the untapped potential of inland waterways between the countries that can contribute in an overall economic development of the Himalayan region.

Towards that, the statement said, they took a “landmark decision” to develop the inland waterways for the movement of cargo, within the framework of trade and transit arrangements, providing additional access to sea for Nepal.

This will enable cost effective and efficient movement of cargo and greatly impact the growth of business and economy of Nepal.

Boosting their ties further, India also agreed to conduct a pilot project on organic farming and soil health monitoring in Nepal to help the natural resource-rich neighbour in developing agriculture and allied sectors.

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