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Nepal hopes riding on cross-border rail

By APARAJIT CHAKRABORTY in New Delhi | China Daily | Updated: 2023-01-07 09:15

A train that links Haidong in Qinghai province, Shagatse in Tibet autonomous region, and Kathmandu, capital of Nepal departs from Haidong on Dec 15, 2021. [Photo/CNR]

Study into trans-Himalayan route brings China trade boost into view

Hopes are growing in Nepal for the prospect of increased connectivity with China as plans advance for a railway line connecting the capital Kathmandu with a Chinese border town in the Himalayas.

Chinese experts have begun a feasibility study into the proposed 75-kilometer Kerung-Kathmandu line. That work has got people excited about the projected benefits flowing from increased trade, tourism and people-to-people exchanges between China and Nepal.

Many in Nepal believe the line will boost the livelihoods of ordinary people, and they have welcomed a decision by China to open its border with Nepal, at Rasuwagadhi, after being closed for three years because of COVID-19.

"It is our necessity, it is our dream. This is the way to our prosperity," said Jitender Sharma, a student at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, in voicing the feelings of many as work gets underway on the feasibility study into the line.

Asish Jha, a New Delhi trader who hails from Kathmandu, said: "The news has excited us. The railway connectivity will create employment opportunities for people in Nepal."

With the feasibility study, Nepalese can see that the much-anticipated project has become visible, according to representatives of trade organizations who welcomed the arrival of the Chinese experts for the feasibility study.

A day after Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal assumed office, a six-member Chinese technical team arrived in Kathmandu on Dec 27 to carry out the feasibility study into the cross-border railway.

The start of the feasibility study and the opening of the border at Rasuwagadhi amounted to a double bonanza for the people of Nepal before the new year, said Shekhar Golchha, a prominent trade and industry representative in Nepal.

Railway connectivity and the opening of the border will help to boost two-way trade and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, Golchha added.

Grant from Beijing

The China Railway First Survey and Design Institute Group will carry out the feasibility study with a Chinese government grant.

Because of the difficult terrain, the study is expected to take around three and a half years and it involves laborious engineering work, said Rohit Kumar Bisural, director-general of Nepal's Department of Railways.

The first batch of Chinese experts is to conduct the feasibility study and survey of the China-Nepal cross-border railway, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu said on Dec 27.

"To conduct the feasibility study and survey of the China-Nepal cross-border railway has been a long-cherished dream of the Nepali people," the statement said.

"It is also an integral part of jointly building the Belt and Road Initiative between China and Nepal. China gives priority to Nepal's aspirations and needs in this regard, and will proactively push ahead with the feasibility study with the China aid fund.

"The two countries will maintain close contact and coordination in jointly carrying out the work ahead with a view to building trans-Himalayan multidimensional connectivity network."

It is envisaged that the Kerung-Kathmandu railway will form part of a 550-km line connecting the Tibetan city of Shigatse with Kerung near the Nepal-China border. Although just 75-km long, the construction of the Kerung-Kathmandu section will cost over $3 billion due to the terrain and other complexities, according to the pre-feasibility study report. The plan was formally agreed between China and Nepal in 2017 when Kathmandu joined the BRI.

Then Nepalese prime minister KP Sharma Oli signed the agreement for the project during a visit to China in June 2018. A technical assistance agreement was signed by Nepal and China for the project in March last year following the visit of then Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Kathmandu. Expenses for the feasibility study report and completion of the work on the Chinese side will be borne by the Chinese government, according to the official statements issued by both countries at the time.

On Dec 28, Beijing opened the Kerung-Rasuwagadhi border crossing, allowing Nepal's exports to pass into the key market.

Dahal on Jan 1 inaugurated the Pokhara Regional International Airport in western Nepal. It is a flagship project of Nepal-China BRI cooperation, the Chinese embassy said.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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