Ananta Acharya is the former Director General of the Railway Department. (Photo: Bishal Karki/Saroj Baizu)
Roads and railways are the development projects and the vehicles and trains that ply them are means of transportation. However, in the context of Nepal, the roads and railways have become the cause of geopolitical competition.While the preparations are underway to build Kerung-Kathmandu railway by the northern neighbor China, India has also expressed interest in constructing the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway. And, it makes it clear that this is a geopolitical competition.Against this backdrop, Nepalkhabar talked to Ananta Acharya, former Director General of the Railway Department, for his views on how railways have become the means of geo-political competition. Excerpts:
It seems that the railways have been an issue of internal politics and geopolitical competition. Why the means of infrastructure development and transportation has become the issue of geo-politics?
Nepal is a country situated between the two giant power nations. Our neighboring countries hold two different political ideologies. Hence, it is natural to take geopolitical concerns in Nepal.
When I was in the railway department, Nepali traders brought goods to Nepal by train through Lanzhou in China to Shigatse.
After that, the geopolitical competition started about bringing railways to Nepal. As I was in the railway department, I used to interact with railway officials from both China and India. When the photos of Nepali merchants arriving by railway through Lanzhou to Sigatse became public, friends related to a train in the southern neighborhood started expressing concern. During the conversation, they used to say, "Why are we (India) lagging behind in bringing railways to Nepal?"
We are a non-aligned nation. We will develop our country by maintaining friendly relations with both countries. We were not to be swayed towards any one side.
Does this mean that the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway plan has moved forward to take advantage of the geopolitical competition between India and China?
Yes. After we proposed the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway, the Indian side was also very happy. Indian friends felt that they were not ignored, they were given equal importance.
If the train comes from India, we will build a station called 'Kathmandu South' at Chobhar in Kathmandu. The old cement factory in Chobhar is being cleared for a dry port. The railroad coming from the south connects there. A station called 'Kathmandu South' is built there. Another station will be built at Tokha, where a station called 'Kathmandu North' will be built for trains coming from China. What difference does it make to us? We have to equalize the two neighbors.
As the discussion of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway began, the discussion and construction process of Raxaul-Kathmandu railway began to progress. How necessary is the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway for us?
We are building a railway from Mechi to Mahakali. After the railway is built, who will ride it? In other words, the process is taken forward by taking into account the number of passengers. Because a large part of the population is in Kathmandu. If the population of Kathmandu is not taken into consideration, only empty coaches will run on the east-west railway. There had to be enough people to run the train.
People from the east also come to Kathmandu. People from the West also come to Kathmandu. Very few people go to Mahakali from Mechi. Therefore, the east-west railway must be connected to Kathmandu, so that people going east can also go by train, and people going west can also use the train. Only then will our train be successful. If not, the huge investment in railways will go down the drain. Ever since I joined the railway department in March 2014, I have been working with this concept.
With the discussion of Kerung-Kathmandu railway, preparations for Raxaul-Kathmandu railway also started. From where will the train arrive in Kathmandu first?
The proposal for the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway was made after the process of construction of Kerung-Kathmandu railway had started. However, if we talk about the current progress, it seems that the train will reach Kathmandu from Raxaul before Kerung. Because, the Detailed Project Report (DPR) of Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway has been prepared. The Indian side has also handed over the 'DPR' to Nepal.
However, the preparation of the detailed project report (DPR) of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway line is still pending.
Will the railway be built only with grants or will we also have to invest something?
It would have been done with subsidy till DPR. For instance, DPR of Raxaul-Kathmandu railway was built by India with subsidy. First, they conducted a preliminary engineering traffic (PET) survey, which is a preliminary form of feasibility study. Based on that, they make the DPR, which has now been completed.
The Chinese call it 'Preliminary Feasibility Survey'. The Chinese did it at their own expense. However, the Chinese side expected that wanted Nepal to spend some money for the preparation of a DPR.
Kerung-Kathmandu railway is a project to be built in a very difficult terrain. It costs a lot of money to build. Construction work is also very difficult. I went to Beijing during the feasibility study period. During the presentation, the Chinese friends said, "The geography is very difficult, the construction of the railway costs a lot, and the DPR also costs a lot."
Even now, the Nepali side wants the Kerung-Kathmandu railway should be built by China with a subsidy. What do you say?
When I was the director general of the railway department, the total cost for the construction of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway was calculated to be around 300 billion. This was five years ago. At that time, I said, "Let us (Nepal) invest 20 percent of the total cost (about Rs 300 billion). Let them give us a 30 percent subsidy. Let China provide the remaining amount in loans.
When that railway is built, China can also benefit through trade. That is why I said China should give a 30 percent subsidy.
I also prepared a draft of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) incorporating this. Chinese would have accepted it if it had been proposed in this way.
Let's go back to the Kerung-Kathmandu railway again. Can it be said that Kerung-Kathmandu railway is not getting priority now because China has delayed the construction of Sigatse-Kerung railway?
The distance from Lhasa to Sigatse is about 250 km. The distance from Sigatse via Kerung to Tokha (Kathmandu) is 599 km. Out of this, the distance between Kerung and Kathmandu is only 72 km.
It was discussed from 2075 to 077 that the construction of Sigatse-Kerung railway would be done immediately. However, later the Chinese hesitated. The aim of the Chinese side is to connect the railway up to Kerung with India. Bringing a railway to Kerung without connecting India will waste the investment.
What is the nature of the railway from Raxaul and Kerung to Kathmandu?
Technically speaking, the railway from Raxaul looks easier than Kerung. Earlier, during the PET (Preliminary Engineering and Traffic) survey, the distance of Raxaul-Kathmandu railway was said to be 136 km. According to the latest survey, this railway distance is said to be 140 km.
Out of this, 65-68 km is from Raxaul to Nijgadh. As the area is plain, the railway is convenient in this section. The section from Nijgadh to Sisneri in Makwanpur is also not that difficult. A little difficult plot is the distance from Sisneri to Kathmandu, which is only 30 to 40 km.
It is said that there will be about 40 kilometers of tunnels on this railway. Therefore, tunneled railroads are formed after entering difficult terrain.
The Kerung-Kathmandu railway is constructed in a somewhat difficult terrain. This railway is also a bit risky as it is located in an earthquake zone.
Another risk is that the area is a 'permafrost region' (permanently frozen area). In such areas the bearing capacity of the soil is low. Icy soil is characterized by shrinking and swelling. Construction work is also difficult due to this character of the soil.
Another problem of Kerung-Kathmandu railway is its gradient. The altitude of Kerung is about 4 thousand 100 meters. Coming down a little, its altitude is 3 thousand 800 meters. The report shows that the altitude is about 1 thousand 300 meters after entering the Nepal-China border and reaching Kathmandu.
According to the plans made when you were in the railway department, where would the railways from the north and the south meet?
The meeting point was not specified. It was also difficult from a technical point of view.
Because, the Chinese 'standard gauge' train is leaky. The gauge of Indian Railways is 'broad gauge'. Due to the difference in gauge, the standard gauge train cannot run on broad gauge. A broad gauge train cannot run on a leak where a standard gauge train runs.
This is why I have envisaged two stations namely 'Kathmandu North' and 'Kathmandu South'. A separate train line can be made to reach Kathmandu by train to another railway station.
Recently, Russia has proposed to build a metro rail in Kathmandu. What do you say about this?
The population of Kathmandu is about 4 million. But the area is small. What is said in the railway literature is that metro rail is essential for a city with a population of 3 million.
This is also true if we look at the traffic situation in Kathmandu. Kathmandu's traffic management is chaotic. It seems that if you want to get anywhere in Kathmandu in the next five years, it will be faster to walk than to take a car.
There are two options to solve this problem. That transportation should be arranged using the space above the ground, or the underground part should be used.
There is a 'school of thought' that cities are ugly when they are built on land. If so, then the best option is the Metro Rail, which runs underground.
Besides, there are many 'heritage areas' in Kathmandu. Building a railway on or above ground will affect the 'Heritage Area'. Hence, the best option for Kathmandu is the underground metro train.
Its cost will be 3-4 times more than normal railway. However, there is no better option than this for Kathmandu.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) is visiting China. Are there any topics to talk about on this tour about trains?
First of all, both sides should sit down and talk, and find out how much China and Nepal will benefit from the railway.
Of course, China has a lot of benefits from railways, but Nepal will have fewer benefits than China. Even if there is little benefit, the railway connecting the north neighbor is necessary for us. Therefore, we should not say that we won't invest a single penny. We should do all the work with subsidy.
I have worked with both Chinese and Indians. If we talk to them properly, I don't think they will deny our proposal. Both parties should not dig their heels on the issue of investment in railways. The issue of investment be resolved through negotiation, and the solution is not complicated.