India’s Act East policy hit by poor Train connectivity in the Northeast

NEW DELHI: Act East’ & ‘Act Fast’ are not merely a branding (phrase) but something in which India believes in,” Railway Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted on September 16, to emphasise India’s growing engagement with its neighbours.

Though India remains committed to expanding relations with its neighbours on trade, tourism and diplomacy as part of the Act East policy, a lot remains to be desired in developing rail links. Among the six neighbouring countries with which India has land connectivity — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, China and Pakistan — the only one with which it has a passenger train connection is Bangladesh.

Train services to Pakistan were halted in February due to worsening political developments. Freight train services exist with Nepal. With Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar, at least 15 projects have been going on for about eight years. They are now at various levels of progress. Some others have not seen forward movement at all.

As India strives to emerge as a strong regional power and to counter China’s rising dominance in the region, the need for railway links with its neighbours can hardly be overemphasised. Lets take a look at the work in progress on railway links with neighbours and the reasons for the delay:

INDIA-NEPAL Himalayan Task: Land Acquisition

About 110 freight trains run from Raxaul in Bihar to Birgunj in Nepal every month. But no passenger train is operational on the 10 km route. A 200 km passenger train link from Raxaul to Kathmandu was proposed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in May 2019. A Railway Ministry official involved with the project says: “Four alternatives with various lengths and costs have been shared with the government of Nepal in May. We are yet to hear from them. Even if we finance the project, land is a sentimental issue in Nepal. So land acquisition is extremely slow.”

This project is aimed at countering China’s plan plans to build a strategic railway network with our neighbour in an effort to reduce Nepal’s dependence on India. In October, China signed a deal with Nepal to construct a rail link from Lhasa till Kathmandu — seen as Beijing’s move to curtail Kathmandu’s trade dependence on Delhi.

India has it task cut out, especially as China has convinced Nepal to adopt their gauge standard and is spending billions on its massive Belt and Road Initiative.

Work on a 34 km Jaynagar (Bihar)-Kurtha (Nepal) passenger line was completed in 2018. But operations are yet to begin. The MEA is bearing the cost for both the projects.

Among the nine rail projects proposed with Nepal, only Jogbani (Bihar)-Biratnagar and Jaynagar (Bihar)-Barbidas are under execution. Both are expected to be completed by 2020. The Indian Railways says the neighbouring country has not cooperated well. “Actual work starts only when a survey is done and routes are finalised,” adds a Railway Board official. Nepal is yet to acquire land and respond to the other project proposals.

Railway Ministry sources say connectivity with China is cheaper for Nepal. “Every time we make an offer for passenger rail connectivity, China make a counteroffer. So Nepal gets bargaining power. Also, judicial activism is taking shape in a big way there. For example, land could not be acquired for a section of the Biratnagar track due to an appeal in their Supreme Court for higher compensation. But the Indian government is reviewing these projects at the highest level; the PM himself is reviewing them every three months,” adds the railway official.

LINE & LENGTH
Rail connectivity with Nepal now: Freight trains ply on Raxaul-Birgunj route but there are no passenger trains yet

Under Execution

JOGBANI-BIRATNAGAR Length: 18.6 km new line Estimated cost: Rs 374 cr JAYNAGAR-BARDIBAS Length: 51.5 km guage conversion; 16.5 km new line Estimated cost: Rs 786 cr.

BABAGANJ-NEPALGANJ Length: 12 km new line Estimated cost: Rs 650 cr NAUTANWA-BHAIRAWA Length: 25.1 km new line Estimated cost: Rs 599 cr NEW JALPAIGURIKAKARBHITTA Length: 30 km gauge conversion; 15.8 km new line Estimated cost: Rs 627 cr

RAXAUL-KATHMANDU Length: 200 km new line BARHNI-KATHMANDU Length: 359 km new line KUSHINAGAR-KAPILVASTU Length: 160 km new line.

INDIA-BHUTAN Viable Offer, Vague Reply

There is no rail connectivity to the Himalayan nation. The five feasible rail routes with Bhutan are a 57 km line from Kokhrajhar (Assam) to Gelephu, a 51.15 km line from Pathsala (Assam) to Nanglam, a 48 km line from Rangiya (Assam) to Samdrup Jongkhar, a 23 km line between West Bengal’s Banarhat to Samtse and a 17.52 km line between Hasimara in West Bengal to Phuentsholing.

“Feasibility studies were carried out at five locations and the report submitted to the MEA around a year ago. Bhutan is yet to respond,” a railway official says. “Bhutan does not want to take a loan for the project. Naturally, no progress has yet been made.” To expedite the projects, the MEA has agreed to bear the cost for the neighbour’s stretch also. “Still many of the projects are languishing due to non-cooperation from Bhutan and possible interference from China,” adds an official involved in the project.

LINE & LENGTH

INDIA-BHUTAN

Rail connectivity with Bhutan now: None

Planning stage

HASIMARAPHUENTSHOLING Length: 18 km RANGIA-SAMDRUP JONGKHAR Length: 48 km Estimated cost: Rs 901 cr

KOKRAJHAR–GELEPHU Length: 58 km Estimated cost: Rs 554 cr

BANARHAT-SAMTSE Length: 23 km Estimated cost: Rs 423 cr

PATHHALA-NANGLAM Length: 51 km Estimated cost: Rs 1,015 cr

INDIA-BANGLADESH Friendly Nations, Unfriendly Terrain

The Kolkata-Dhaka Maitree Express, launched in 2008, runs four days a week, while the Kolkata-Khulna Bandhan Express, launched in 2017, runs once a week. The average daily ridership for Maitree is 411 passengers from Dhaka and 396 from Kolkata as of August 2019, according to the Railway Ministry. The ridership for Bandhan is only 74 from Kolkata and 197 from Khulna.

On the freight side, the average traffic to Bangladesh is 55,645 tonnes a month, says the ministry. “With friendly diplomatic relations with Bangladesh, we have been able to make much headway,” says a railway ministry official involved in the project. But this only the Indian side of the story.

A 15 km (6 km on Indian side) link connecting Akhaura in Bangladesh with Agartala was conceived in 2010 and expected to be finished in three years. A line is already operational from Akhaura to Kolkata.

“The Akhaura-Agartala line is arguably the slowest among all the projects with our neighbours,” says another railway official. As of date, 30% of earthwork, which involves creating a foundation for tracks, has been completed on the Indian side. Bangladesh is yet to start work. “The main problems in Bangladesh is the difficult terrain and heavy rains. Besides, Bangladesh does not keep pace with us even as the entire cost of `887 crore is being borne by the MEA,” says a Railway Board official.

The MEA says work is under progress. “Work started only in 2017 due to changes in design and routes. All impediments are being worked out. This project is strategically important and is being monitored at the highest level. It should be completed by 2020,” says Hitesh J Rajpal, director-Bangladesh division, MEA.

The track will open a trade route to Chittagong port from Tripura, he adds. “It will help reduce the transit time dramatically between Kolkata and Agartala as we can avoid Chicken’s Neck to reach Bangladesh.” The line is expected to cut the Agartala-Kolkata distance to 350 km from 1,700 km.

On the positive side, the 112 km Agartala-Sabroom (south Tripura) broad gauge line — commissioned in 2008-09 for `3,407 crore — has been completed. So is the survey for a line connecting Haldibari in West Bengal to Chilahati, sanctioned in 2016-17 with an estimated cost of `69 crore. “Any rail project is a function of political relationship. With Bangladesh, we are also working to restore all pre-1965 rail links damaged during the war with Pakistan,” says V Doraiswami , joint secretary (Bangladesh-Myammar & Indo-Pacific), MEA.

Rail connectivity with Bangladesh now:

.. Gede-Darshana.. Singhabad-Rohanpur.. Petrapole-Benapole.. Radhikapur-Birol.. Kolkata-Dhaka.. Kolkata-Khulna.

Under execution AGARTALA-AKHAURA Estimated cost: Rs 569 cr (India); Rs318 cr (Bangladesh)

HALDIBARI-CHILAHATI Length: 3 km Estimated cost: Rs 69 cr AGARTALA-SABROOM Length: 112 km Estimated cost: Rs 3,407 crore

INDIA-MYANMAR Great Wall of China in the Way

There is no rail link between India and Myanmar. All roads and routes to Myanmar pass through China — that is the saying in Naypyitaw owing to the nations’ longstanding ties with Beijing, says a Railway Board official. “Chinese influence is the greatest inhibiting factor.” Naturally, India has not been able to make much progress.

Rail connectivity exists till Jiribam in Manipur. The 125 km Jiribam-Imphal broad gauge project was sanctioned in 2003-04. Even though the project will be on the Indian side, an engineer involved in the project says: “It will strengthen trade relations among Asean countries, help in military operations and also promote tourism.”

About two-thirds work has been completed for the Rs 13,809 crore project started in 2003-04. A railway official says: “The link that will have 52 tunnels, 149 bridges, the world’s tallest girder railway bridge and India’s longest tunnel.” Two other projects — Imphal to Moreh and Moreh to Tamu-Kalay — are at the proposal stage. “Our work is not showing results because of lack of interest from their side.”

Other common hurdles are gauge conversion, land acquisition, difficult terrain and heavy monsoons. Despite several challenges, there is something India can emulate from China — which in 2017 started a 12,000 km freight train service from Yiwu to London, covering seven countries and establishing a “modern-day Silk Road”. “We must accept that we are late starters.

China’s infrastructure and manufacturing capacity is much higher than ours,” adds the railway official. “We must also invest heavily in these sectors.”

LINE & LENGTH INDIA-MYANMAR

Rail connectivity with Myanmar now: None Under execution or planning stage JIRIBAM-IMPHAL (within India)

Length: 125 km Estimated cost: Rs 9,658 cr IMPHAL-MOREH (within India) Length: 111.2 km Estimated cost: Rs 5,428 cr MOREH-TAMU-KALAY Length: 128 km

The Imphal-Moreh and Moreh-Tamu-Kalay lines are in the proposal stage.

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