Rail link to Bhutan hinges on land nod

Thimpu: Bhutan is awaiting a land largesse from chief minister Mamata Banerjee to fulfil its dream of having a railway connectivity with India.

The land-locked Himalayan country has also rolled out the red carpet for investors from India to scoop up land in four industrial estates along the border.

In its effort to increase trade with India, Bhutan has been eagerly awaiting rail connectivity with its southern neighbour since 2005, when the proposal was made.

Remote Bhutan aims to draw Investments in the Himalayan country (In the picture: Modi's Bhutan visit)
Remote Bhutan aims to draw Investments in the Himalayan country (In the picture: Modi’s Bhutan visit)

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had in 2008 promised that the rail link – an 18km stretch from Hasimara in Bengal to Phuentsholing in Bhutan – would be established.

But as India is yet to deliver on the promise, Bhutanese authorities took the matter up with Mamata during her maiden trip to the country.

“A railway link with India can take the relationship and connectivity between the two countries to a new level…. But there have been some land-related issues. We think these problems can be resolved,” Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said after the meeting.

The prospect of Indian investment on over 1,350 acres in the four industrial estates also came up for discussion during the meeting. The rail link is important because it would connect Bhutan’s commercial centre of Phuentsholing and the nearby industrial estate of Pasakha, where over 700 acres are available for industry.

While the exact land requirement for the railway project is yet to be announced, sources confirmed that there was an attempt to convince Mamata about the importance of the link for the overall economic development of the region.

Sources in the Indian side said the railway link project remained stillborn since Mamata’s protests over land in Singur and Nandigram created ripples elsewhere.

“There has been opposition from some tea garden owners and some residents over land acquisition for the project,” said a source.

When Mamata was asked about her stand on the railway link, the former railway minister said she was not aware of the project. Bhutanese sources also confirmed the possibility of “lack of communication” on the Indian side.

Elaborating on the issue, Mamata tossed alternative approaches.

“Our stand on land acquisition is clear and we will not allow any forcible acquisition…. But several other alternatives can be explored, like having an elevated track,” she said.

The Bhutanese authorities, sources said, were aware of political compulsions of their Indian counterparts and never pushed Delhi to deliver on its promise.

But now that the Tobgay government is trying to chart a new economic trajectory for the country – which grew at 6.8 per cent in 2014 – a railway link with India has assumed paramount importance.

Although India and Bhutan have road links, a rail link can give the economy a big push to the four industrial parks.

“We are inviting foreign direct investment from India and we want to assure investors that they would not have to worry about land,” said Norbu Wangchuk, the economic affairs minister of Bhutan, at a business conclave organised by the Indian Chamber of Commerce and its Bhutanese counterpart.

The decision to offer land for industrial estates seems to be a good strategy as availability of land has become a political hot potato in India. Recently, Bangladesh also offered to create a special economic zone for Indian investors in the country.

Although Mamata remained non-committal about the railway project, she said Bhutan and Bengal would work together for promotion of tourism and renewable energy. She also suggested setting up a steering committee to facilitate more trade.