By Ritu Raj Subedi (21 November 2017) – Virtually, all the political parties contesting the federal and provincial elections, scheduled for Nov. 26 and Dec. 7 respectively, have promised to bring the Chinese rail system to Nepal. In their election manifestos, the parties commit themselves to opening routes from Kerung near the Nepal-China border to the capital Kathmandu, and the cities of Pokhara and Lumbini.
The political parties are putting emphasis on the railway as a definite election ploy, as an increasing number of Nepalese see this as a way to end the country’s landlocked position dominated by India and gain access to the sea via Chinese territory.
In its poll manifesto, the Left Alliance, comprising the two big communist parties, the CPN-UML and the CPN-Maoist Centre, pledge to lay an electrified line from Rasuwagadhi, close to the border with Tibet, to Kathmandu and then on to Pokhara and further to Lumbini in five years if allowed to form a government.
The ruling Nepali Congress has shown a similar if somewhat longer commitment.
“A railway will be constructed to develop Nepal as a transit point between China and India,” says its manifesto, adding that its master plan would involve completing construction of the railway from the Chinese border to Kathmandu, and then to the Indian border, over a 10-year period.
Political observers claim the N.C.was compelled to include the “Chinese railway” in its manifesto because of public pressure. It has often been accused of working at the beck and call of India, which is regarded as being behind the formation of the present Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government.
It has now invoked the specter of communist authoritarianism to vilify the rising popularity of the Left Alliance ahead of the crucial polls. However, it could not brush aside the idea of linking Nepal with China by rail.
China plans to build a railway track from Shigatse in Tibet to Kerung under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by 2020. The Rasuwagadhi-Kerung entry point has been upgraded as an international crossing with a view to developing it as China’s gateway to South Asia. It is currently the second largest border point after Tatopani.
There was a pleasant coincidence as, on the day the Left Alliance announced its support for rail construction (Nov.7), a Chinese technical team was holding discussions with Nepalese government representatives on the project’s feasibility.
The Chinese team under Zheng Jian, chief engineer of the National Railway Administration, undertook a five-day field trip to Kerung, Pokhara and Lumbini. On Nov. 11, the Chinese delegation concluded that two railways – Kathmandu-Kerung and Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini – were feasible despite the geological difficulties.
This is the first time Nepal and China have held an inter-government meeting to give momentum to the railway project. The two nations had reached an understanding during former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit to China in 2016. While showing interest to extend technical support to the construction, the Chinese side has put its estimated cost at Rs 275 billion.
Before starting the project, the two sides need to sort out political, legal and administrative matters. Preparing the Detailed Project Report (DPR), and finalizing its modality and each side’s investment share form significant parts of project.
The Nepal government had included the 287-km railway project in the budget of fiscal year 2016-17. However, the Chinese team had expressed concern about the legal aspects of acquiring land and forest areas through which the railway line will pass.
Meanwhile, candidates contesting the federal and provincial polls in Province 4, which covers Pokhara, have made the “Chinese rail” their key election agenda, saying it would immensely promote tourism to the scenic city that is a preferred destination for foreign visitors.
The candidates and voters have been enthused after the Chinese technical team inspected Birauta, Hemja and Bijayapur of Kaski district to check on feasibility. Pokhara is considered the country’s tourism hub, and the Chinese railway is seen as crucial to plans to attract larger number of domestic and foreign tourists.
In May 2017, Nepal joined the BRI with a hope of obtaining long-term benefits. With Nepalese political parties promising to implement much-desired project, travelling in on a China-built railway appears no longer just a distant dream.
Ritu Raj Subedi is an associate editor of The Rising Nepal.