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    South Asia
     May 15, 2008
Nepal to get China rail link
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - China has begun building a railway connecting the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the market town of Khasa on the Sino-Nepal border. The rail link, the latest Chinese initiative to improve its transport infrastructure in the Himalayan region, is expected to enhance Nepal's economic engagement with China and reduce its dependence on India.

The 770-kilometer Lhasa-Khasa railway line is an extension of the world's highest railway, which runs from Golmud in China's Qinghai province to Lhasa. Inaugurated in August 2006, the Golmud-Lhasa rail integrated Tibet into China's national rail network. With its extension up to the Nepal border, Nepal will be

 

plugged into China's rail network.

Landlocked Nepal has hitherto largely been dependent on India for imports. With trains from China soon reaching its border, Nepal will find importing from its northern neighbor easier. Sino-Nepal trade will expand exponentially, at India's expense.

Road and rail building has been a key component of the Chinese grand strategy in the Himalayan region for decades. Building motorable roads into Tibet began as early as 1950, in line with Mao Zedong's orders to the People's Liberation Army as it prepared to annex the territory: "Advance while building roads."

The construction of roads linking Tibet with Qinghai, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Yunnan was achieved against all odds and at great human cost. But it enabled Beijing to pour troops into Tibet to quell unrest, provide supplies to soldiers deployed there, consolidate its control over Tibet and integrate the area economically with China.

Now the focus is on improving Tibet's connectivity with South Asia, flattening, as it were, the Himalayan barrier to overland trade.

Besides the Lhasa-Khasa railway, China is said to be considering an extension of the Golmu-Lhasa line up to Xigaze, south of Lhasa and from there to Yatung, a trading center, barely a few kilometers from Nathu La, a mountain pass that connects Tibet with the Indian state of Sikkim. There is a proposal too to extend the line to Nyingchi, an important trading town north of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, at the tri-junction with Myanmar.

These rail lines will bring Chinese trains up to Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh - two Indian states that figure prominently on the radar of Sino-Indian disputes. China claims 90,000 square kilometers of territory in the eastern Himalayas, roughly approximating to Arunachal Pradesh, and Chinese incursions are reported here frequently. As for Sikkim, it is only since 2004 that China has implicitly recognized its integration into India. Not only does Sikkim share borders with Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan but also it is situated above the "Chicken's Neck" - the sliver of land that links India with its northeastern states.

The extension of the railway to the Sino-Indian border at Sikkim and Arunachal could pose a threat to India's security and economy if New Delhi fails to build its own network here to match the Chinese, Indian analysts say.

In July 2006, Sino-Indian border trade was resumed at Nathu La in Sikkim after a gap of 44 years. Officials in the Sikkim government told Asia Times Online that compared with China's elaborate network of roads and planned railway to Nathu La, "on this side of the border the state of infrastructure is laughable".

One said: "When trade takes off in a big way in a few years, goods by the train-load will arrive at Nathu La from China. India will be in a position then to send back mere truck-loads."

Sikkim has only one road - a 56-kilometer single-lane link - linking its capital Gangtok to Nathu La, and one landslide-prone road, just five meters wide, joining the area with the rest of India. Sikkim's road density is 28.45 kilometers per 100 square kilometer against the national average of 84 kilometers. Arunachal Pradesh is even worse off, with a road density of just 18.65 kilometers per 100 square kilometer.

India's rail network is the world's most extensive but it does not penetrate the border-states of Sikkim, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. The situation in the other northeastern states is only marginally better.

Economists and security experts have been warning that Delhi is napping while China is set to chug up to the Sino-Indian border. Government officials, for their part, point to innumerable proposed road and rail projects. "The feasibility of some road and rail links is being studied, some projects have been sanctioned and others are being executed," a senior government official in Delhi told Asia Times Online.

India does plan to expand its rail links with Nepal, proposing to extend across the Nepal border to Kathmandu the rail line at present connecting Raxaul in Bihar state with Birganj. Trucks carrying Indian goods from Birganj to Kathmandu have to travel 220 kilometers. A train from Birganj to Kathmandu that cuts through mountains will be a mere 80 kilometers, cutting travel time and costs.

The technical and financial feasibility of five other routes - Nautanwa in India to Bhairahwa in Nepal, Nepalgunj Road to Nepalgunj, Jogbani to Biratnagar, New Jalpaiguri to Kakrabitta and Jayanagar to Bardibas - is being studied.

India also plans to run rail links to Bhutan, which like Nepal is landlocked and sandwiched between India and China. There are plans to connect Hasimara in India with Phuentsholing in Bhutan, Banarhat to Samtse, Rangia to Samdrup Jongkhar, Kokrajhar to Gelephu and Pathsala to Nanglam.

In Sikkim, the Gangtok-Nathu La road is being widened and the government has sanctioned another linking Sikkim with the rest of India to be built.

In Arunachal Pradesh, airports will be built in the state capital Itanagar and another at Tawang, a district which is seen as holding the key to the Sino-Indian border dispute. India is also constructing a 1,840 kilometer trans-Arunachal highway touching India's borders with China, Bhutan and Myanmar and a rail network.

This array of road and rail-building projects looks positive on paper but completion targets may prove fickle, if the experience of the strife-torn states of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur is any guide. Trains were supposed to be running in the Kashmir Valley by last August, but that now looks unlikely to happen for another five years at least.

In comparison, road and rail projects in China are completed quickly and often ahead of time. The Golmud-Lhasa line was ready a year ahead of schedule. "China begins implementation of projects quickly," a Sikkim government official said. A month after the inauguration of the Golmud-Lhasa railway, China promised the Nepal government that it would extend this line up to the Sino-Nepal border. "Less than two years after that promise was made, work has begun," the official said. "And it will be completed in five years."

Indian railway construction officials blame difficult, mountainous terrain for the delay in projects. About 120 kilometer of the 292 kilometer Kashmir railway line consists of tunnels; delaying matters further, several are reported to have collapsed during construction. Yet the much longer Golmud-Lhasa rail runs through far more treacherous terrain and climatic conditions and was completed on time.

India's road and rail projects in the Himalayan region often run through insurgency-wracked regions, with security concerns adding to delays. The Kashmir rail line has come under repeated attacks and at least two Indian railway employees have been in efforts to halt the project.

Economists have said the Indian government has been shortsighted in assessing the benefits and feasibility of projects. The Bhutan rail link may attract too little passenger and goods traffic to justify the cost and the Sikkim link may also serve merely border trade at Nathu La.

Compare that with the benefits to China of a Nathu La link, which will open access to the Indian port of Kolkata and to markets in the Indian plains, Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Parts of the Indian establishment also fear that building an extensive road/rail network along the country's northern borders will help Chinese good to flood Indian markets - overlooking the opportunities for India in the opposite direction.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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