Nepal to begin work on rail links to China and India “within two years”

The government of Nepal has said technical studies for the construction of railways linking it with India and China have been completed, and construction work will begin by 2021.

Bidhya Devi Bhandari, president of Nepal, told the parliament: "The detailed project reports for the Birgunj-Kathmandu and Rasuwagadhi-Kathmandu railways … will be prepared and construction works will be started within two years."

The 70km link between Kathmandu to Birgunj, on Nepal’s border with India, is seen as the easier option, and Ms Bhandari said it would be "made operational" within the next fiscal year.

There is greater doubt about the link to Rasuwagadhi on Nepal’s northern border with Tibet, which will link with a line from Qinghai to Shigatse on the Chinese side. Raghubir Mahaseth, minister for infrastructure, said last year that a link will be completed by 2023.

Although the distance is similar, the technical, financial and environmental challenges are greater: it has been estimated that more than 98% of the line would have to be carried by bridges or go through tunnels.

Yoana Barakova, a research analyst with the European Foundation for South Asian Studies, commented: "Since financial arrangements have not been yet officially made it still remains to be seen whether Nepal will contemplate following its South Asian neighbours like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have fallen prey to Chinese irredeemable debts."

She added that given the distances and terrain involved, substantial funding running into billions of dollars would be required.

In May 2017, Beijing signed a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative with Kathmandu for roads, railways, ports and aviation, as well as hydropower and energy projects, finance and tourism. However, the railway lies as the centre of that infrastructure programme. (See Further reading below)

Image: An ancient fort in Rasuwa District (Krish Dulal/CC BY-SA 3.0)

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