By Charles F Moreira, Editor
I attended the 9th Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Solidarity with Cuba in Kathmandu, Nepal on 26 and 27 July 2019, and during our tour of Kathmandu and the Chandragiri Hills resort on the second day, I asked a member of the organising committee, also a Central Committee member of the ruling Nepal Communist Party what Nepal needed most right now and he replied – “infrastructure”.
As our cable car rose up towards the hill I spotted through the mist, high voltage electrical cables on gleaming steel pylons running along the side of the hill – clear evidence of some recently built modern infrastructure.
For a long time already, tourism has been a major revenue earner for Nepal, with mountains, hiking trails, plenty of historical, cultural, religious, nature, beautiful lakes and scenic attractions to visit and explore.
However, it was evident in Kathmandu itself and along the road from our hotel to the cable car station that this land-locked country sandwiched between India and Tibet, China still had a long way to go to catch up with the prosperity of the rest of rising Asia.
During a state visit to Nepal in 2014, India’s newly elected prime minister Narendra Modi offered his host country a US$ 1 billion soft loan for infrastructure and hydropower development,which will be provided by the Indian Export Import Bank. This loan is separate from the US$250 million concessional loan provided in 2011.
“I want to double the amount of electricity India is providing Nepal today so we have to lay the transmission lines as soon as possible” said Narendra.
Part for the loan will also help Nepal develop its information and communications technology industries.
“Nepal should not be left behind among the nations of the world. Nepal too has to catch up with the digital age and it has to be connected to the world at large”, he added.
Around the same time, China increased its aid to Nepal from US$24 million to US$128 million and its state owned Export Import Bank had agreed to offer Nepal concessional loans worth US$1.6 billion to fund the 750MW West Seti hydropower scheme. Other projects sponsored by China include airports and a pilgrimage centre at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.
Meanwhile, key infrastructure such as modern highways and railways connecting Nepal to India and China would greatly help boost Nepal’s economy and end her isolation.
Given that the Himalaya mountain range separates the plains of Nepal, India and Bhutan from the plateau of Tibet, China, building railways and highways between Tibet and Kathmandu will be more challenging and expensive than highways and railways between Nepal and India.
Since the region is earthquake-prone, some experts believe that highways are less risky than railways, especially when an estimated 98.5% of the Tibet to Nepal railway is expected to have to be run on elevated tracks and in tunnels through the Himalayas.
The India Connection
Already, the Tribhuvan Highway links Birgunj on the Nepal side of the Nepal-India border to Kathmandu 135 km to the north and southwards to Raxaul in Bihar state, India. Dubbed as the “Gateway to Nepal” and the “Commercial capital of Nepal”, most of Nepal’s trade with India passes through Birgunj and Raxaul.
Also, India already helps Nepal run the 25-km railway from Janakpur in Nepal across the border to Jainagar in India.
On 19 September 2020, India’s Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd delivered two modern Diesel-Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU) trains to the Nepal Railway Company for the 35 km broad gauge line from Jainagar, India to Kurtha in Nepal.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nepal Railway engineer Binod Ojha expects service to begin in mid-December when pandemic conditions are expected to improve, thus inaugurating the first broad-gauge railway service in Nepal.
According to Indian Embassy sources, the Kurtha to Jainagar train will benefit citizens of both countries.
The Jainagar to Kurtha like is the first phase of the 69 km long Jainaga – Janakpur – Bardibas line being built at a cost of Rs 10 billion (US$134 million) with support from India’s government.
The 17 km long second section will run between Kurtha and Bhangaha in Nepal, whilst the 17 kn long third phase will run from Bhangaha to Bardibas, also in Nepal.
The Jaynagar to Kurtha rail line was originally built during the British colonial period to transport logs from forests at Mahottari, Nepal to India. That line was 52 km long.
The China Connection
The currently ruling Nepal Communist Party is an alliance between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and in the heat of phases one and two of Nepal’s legislative elections on 26 November and 7 December 2017 respectively, CPN (M) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (a.k.a. Prachanda) and CPN (UML) leader KP Sharma Oli had repeatedly promised to link Nepal and China via rail services, according to China.org.cn and their promises to bring more Chinese investments to Nepal were warmly welcomed by the general public and private sector alike.
The two NCP alliance parties also promised to connect the eastern part of Nepal to the western belt and Rasuwa-Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini via electric rail services by 2022.
Railway services are a long-awaited yet unfulfilled dream for the Nepalis, and if China’s existing high-speed trains travelling at up to 300 kmph are used, travel from Nepal’s east to west coast would be covered in about three hours, whilst the journey from Gyirong to Kathmandu, Kathmandu to Pokhara, and Pokhara to Lumbini could take only 30 minutes each.
At a news conference in Kathmandu on November 17, Yu Hong, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal said that China is willing to become connected to Nepal via road and rail services, and that China was committed to developing road and railways for deeper integration in economic, social, cultural and trade issues between the two countries.
Right now, the railway runs from Lhasa to Shigatse in Tibet and is being extended from Shigatse to Gyirong (Gyirong) on the Tibet border. TravelChinaGuide expects this extension to be completed this year (2020). The Lhasa to Gyirong leg will be 540 km long.
Construction of the 170 km leg from Gyirong to Kathmandu via Rasuwa Ghadhi on the Nepal border is expected to begin this year and is expected to be completed in 2022.
China prepared a railway pre-feasibility study for Nepal in late 2018 that showed how difficult the project would be, according to China Dialogue of 28 June 2019.
“Technically this will be one of the world’s toughest railways to construct,” it quoted Paribesh Parajuli, the one railway engineer at Nepal’s railway department.
Whilst the Chinese study has not been made public. Parajuli said that it lists ‘six extremes’, including topography, weather, hydrology and tectonics that will make construction a challenge.
About 98% of the railway on the Nepal side will be in tunnels and on bridges according to the report, with about five stopovers. Tracks will be built on steep terrain as the railway climbs from an altitude of 1,400 metres in Kathmandu to about 4,000 metres in Tibet.
The proposed route also cuts through the mountains near a major fault line – where the Indian plate meets the Eurasian plate to form the Himalayas – so the area is very susceptible to earthquakes and mitigating these risks means the project will cost far more than normal railways, according to Parajuli.
It can be done!
However, despite construction of the China to Nepal railway expected to be an arduous task given the adverse geographic terrain and its expected high cost, Nepal’s former prime minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, an architect by profession, is confident that it can be done with the help of modern technologies.
“The extreme geography cannot limit us. Modern infrastructure technologies have offered many things for us. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway has already shown how modern railway technologies can link the most remote and difficult to reach places. So, linking China’s Tibet autonomous region and Nepal is possible both through technical and economic means,” Dr Bhattarai said in his speech at the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road International Expo in China’s Guangdong Province.
Likewise, the dream for China’s train to Nepal has come closer after a high-level 35-member Chinese team visited Rasuwa, Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lumbini, to carry out the preliminary feasibility study of a railway in Nepal in the second week of November 2017.
China’s National Railway Administration Deputy Chief Zheng Jian and other high-ranking officials visited Nepal and had interactions with top officials of the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport in Kathmandu.
As the alignment of the railways was an issue of discussions among others, the team shall prepare estimates for the total cost after working on the feasibility study. However, based on the preliminary survey, the construction is forecast to cost NPR 270 billion (US$2.25 billion) for the leg from Gyirong to Kathmandu.
So, enhancing road links between Nepal and China is not be only about reducing transport costs or trade promotion but instead should be seen in the bigger picture to overhaul the economies of the peoples in both the countries.
At the same time the railway, it is expected to create a huge market and this in turn would yield productivity growth and cultural connectivity, and China’s role in railway development would be a landmark support for Nepal’s stability and prosperity.
Meanwhile, TravelChinaGuide expects the Tibet to Nepal railway contribute significantly to the tourism industries of both countries, especially Nepal, which Chinese tourists being the second largest group of inbound tourists to Nepal, especially with train travel being cheaper than air travel and safer than coach travel on roads.
According to Global Construction Review of 8 May 2019, the Nepal government had said that technical studies for the construction of railways linking it with India and China have been completed, and construction work will begin by 2021.
“The detailed project reports for the Birgunj–Kathmandu and Rasuwagadhi–Kathmandu railways … will be prepared and construction works will be started within two years”, Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari had told the parliament.
Hopefully with the economic enhanced economic opportunities enabled by these railway and highway infrastructure, Nepalis will no longer have to work as security guards in neighbouring countries in the Asia-Pacific region to support their families back home.