No Indian train to Kathmandu yet, but Chinese chugs into London

Pashupatinath Express is not the name of any train. It is the bus service between Kathmandu and New Delhi, which was flagged off by prime minister Narendra Modi when he visited Nepal in November 2014.

But the two capitals got linked years after China built Friendship
Highway between Lhasa and Kathmandu and the then PM Vajpayee’s trip to Lahore on Sada-e-Sarhad (Call of Frontier) in February 1999.

Now it is again China, which under its proposed One Belt One Road
initiative plans to put the Nepalese capital on the rail map as it has signed an agreement to build Lhasa-Kathmandu rail route.

Though building rail and road routes  between Lhasa and Kathmandu is an extremely challenging task as they zigzag through some of the most difficult Himalayan passes yet China has scored over India in building defence and business infrastructure all along its border. The prevailing tension between the two countries is also linked to the building of infrastructure by China near Bhutan. We lagged behind China even when the terrain is better on our side, especially in Nepal.

The problem with India is that the train services in north Bihar, east UP and North East were till recent years in very poor shape. So how could the buffer state of Nepal be linked to rest of India? One fact is enough to buttress it: Till 2016 there was only one rail-bridge over river Ganga linking two halves of Bihar when the length of the river in the state is 445 km.

This is the situation notwithstanding the fact that culturally,
religiously and even politically India is much closer to Nepal. For
example, the birth-place of Sita is Janakpur in Nepal, which till 2014 was linked to Jaynagar in Bihar, just 32 km away, by a narrow gauge track. Pilgrims from all over India would converge to Jaynagar to proceed towards Nepal at snail’s pace––10 km per hour. It is after 2014 that work has been undertaken to convert the route to a broad gauge one.

In fact an agreement was inked between India and Nepal in 2010 to
build cross-border train services at five places. Most of these
bordering towns are dominated by Madhesis.

While two routes each have been planned between Bihar and Nepal as well as UP and Nepal the fifth one links New Jalpaiguri to border town of Kakarbhitta in the Himalayan republic.

Like Janakpur, Lumbini, the birth-place of Gautam Buddha and
Kapilvastu are just across UP-Nepal border.

So in near future none of our train is going to reach Kathmandu though there is great scope for building an economic corridor from Nepal to ports in Bengal and Odisha crossing Bihar and mineral-rich Jharkhand.

There is scope to further develop the Buddhist circuit to link Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Vaishali and Kesariya (all in Bihar) and Sarnath in UP. No doubt some works have been done in this direction yet we are far away from matching China’s performance in establishing road and rail network.

The completion of East-West Corridor from Porbandar to Silchar (and now to Moreh in Manipur) has helped increase mobility. So far rail network is concerned, almost the entire north Bihar––as
well as North-East––had till the fag end of 20th century, metre gauge (mostly single- line) routes. The gauge conversion had made it possible to speed up transportation.

Now there is a six km broad gauge line from Raxaul in Bihar to Sirsiya Inland Container Depot or Dry Port near Birganj just across the border. This is only for freight route and may give boost to trade.

But it is too small a feat when compared to China, whose cargo trains have reached Madrid and London and are now planning to enter the heart of the United States some 13,000 km away via Russia, Bering Strait, Alaska and Canada.

Soroor Ahmed is a writer and senior journalist based in Patna.

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