Nepal resurrecting railways as China, India vie for influence
KATHMANDU: Three years after its last train hit the buffers, landlocked Nepal is building a new railway network to boost its ailing economy — helped by the rivalry between its powerful neighbours, China and India.
The railway to India was a lifeline for the small southern frontier town of Janakpur, used to import everything from sweets to clothes and cosmetics and fuelling a vibrant border economy.
But it fell into disrepair after years of neglect and since 2014 the train has sat stationary, its rusting carcass now a playground for children, while Janakpur’s markets are empty.
“When the train was running, we would have a lot of business. I was easily providing (for) my family,” said Shyam Sah, whose small family-run cosmetics shop has suffered an 80 per cent drop in profits since the railway closed.
Now it is being rebuilt with Indian backing, one of three new rail lines — one funded by China in the north and a third by Nepal itself — that the country hopes will help boost international trade.
Nepal remains largely isolated from the global economy, dependent on aid and remittances.
Growth slowed dramatically after a 2015 earthquake but is expected to normalise at five per cent from next year – one of the slowest rates in South Asia — according to the World Bank.
In recent years it has courted its two large neighbours for investment in an attempt to plug itself into a rail network that links the far eastern reaches of Asia with Europe.
This year, Beijing pledged US$8.3 billion (RM35.67 billion) to build roads and hydropower plants in Nepal, dwarfing India’s commitments of US$317 million.
Feasibility studies are also underway for a Beijing-backed railway connecting here to Lhasa in Tibet, cutting straight through the Himalayas at an estimated cost of US$8 billion.
Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat magazine, said that could be a game-changer for the small country.
“The rail line with China holds potential depending on the demand side of the equation, on how China allows Nepal to leverage that link for commercial growth opportunities,” he said.
The project is part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a massive global infrastructure programme to connect Chinese companies to new markets around the world.
New Delhi is funding the reconstruction of the Janakpur line, rebuilding the tracks to carry broad-gauge trains that will allow it to connect to the rest of the subcontinent’s expansive rail network.
Meanwhile Nepal is building a 945km line that will cut across the southern plains from east to west.
Nearly a third of the track has been built, but construction has stalled for lack of funds and it is not clear when it work will be finished. AFP
Nepali children playing near abandoned railway carriages of the Nepal Railway Corporation Ltd in Janakpur, some 300km south of Kathmandu.
The railway has fallen into disrepair after years of neglect.