Chug along if you will



Construction of robust infrastructures acts as a major prerequisite to drive economic progress and for a long time, Nepal has failed to make any substantial progress in infrastructural development. Lack of capitalisation of water resources, insufficient  energy generation, low capex spending, poor road networks, unreliable physical infrastructure and  inadequate transportation system have been acting as bottlenecks against economic prosperity. As a result, industrialisation has not taken place in the real sense in Nepal and the state is forced to incur ballooning trade deficit every year in the absence of strong industrial growth.

That said, Nepal has ample opportunities to make real progress in the development of railway networks by ensuring that the proposed railway connectivity between Kyirong in China and Kathmandu under the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is economically feasible, in effect, stimulating transit route for trade and commerce. Furthermore, the ongoing detailed engineering survey and designing of electric railway line along the Mechi-Mahakali section also provides a favourable scenario for the possible emergence of railway network as a backbone transportation system in Nepal. However, Nepal has an abysmal track record in the handling of big infrastructure projects due to shaky political commitment and sluggish work pace. The development of railway network might suffer the same fate if precautionary measures are not taken.

Prospects of development of railway

A high-level Chinese technical team led by Jhang Lee Yang, deputy administrator of National Railway Administration, completed a field visit of proposed Kyirong-Kathmandu and Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini Railway Project on November 9. The team had arrived in Nepal to look at the technical feasibility study of the proposed railway project and concluded that it is technically feasible to build railway network along the proposed routes. While briefing on the findings at Ministry of Physical infrastructure and Transportation, the team assured that geographical difficulties can be tackled for the development of railway projects. Specifically the team cleared doubts about the altitude variation between Syaprubeshi and Kyirong and also informed on the gap created between Indian and Tibetan tectonic plates due to 2015 earthquake. However, the team

also notified that Detail Project Report (DPR) is necessary for arriving at a solid conclusion before starting the railway project.

Nepal seriously needs to assess its economic needs, compatibility, and take a firm stand against any unequal negotiation that jeopardises the national economy in the long run in lieu of focusing on short term benefits.

Speaking with THT Perspectives, AnantaAcharya, Director General at Department of Railway (DoRW) says, “The Chinese team was involved in a very preliminary phase of study and concrete conclusions can only be drawn after DPR. The preliminary report shows that due to geographical hindrances and high altitude difference between the two locations, tunnels and bridges will have to be constructed in large numbers if we proceed are to with the railway project.”

Besides the preliminary study of proposed railway connectivity with China, the DoRW has made significant progress in the detailed engineering survey and design of electricity-run railway line under Mechi-Mahakali project. Expected to be completed in eight months, DoRW has completed the DPR for eastern section covering the distance between Lalbandi and Kakarbhitta and has also managed to open a 30-km track line between Bardibas and Lalbandi. Acharya says, “After the completion of DPR and finalisation of track routes, tender will be called for laying railway tracks along the surveyed line. With strong political commitment and convenient working environment, the whole project can be completed within five years.”

The completion of Mechi- Mahakali railway project will definitely uplift the quality of transportation within the country and also stimulate economic activities. Infrastructure Expert, Surya Raj Acharya says, “Considering population density, present road networks and problematic transportation facility, there is no doubt that Nepal needs railway network as the back bone of transportation infrastructure.”

Even though Nepal has been dwelling on the possibility of railway networks for the past few years, it is important to note that meticulous project preparedness is necessary for the success of such projects. Furthermore, Nepal needs to set its priorities straight regarding big scale infrastructural projects carried out through foreign loans. Gyanendra Lal Pradhan, Treasurer at Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI) says, “The extension of railway connectivity between China and Nepal via Kyirong–Kathmandu route is a far-fetched idea which does not have any immediate implications. There is no need to make any short-term decision on the construction of railway network right away because it’s more of a long-term need suitable for 2030.”

The challenges ahead                     

The fact that Nepal is lagging behind in the execution of big infrastructural projects clearly indicates that inadequate project preparedness possess a great threat to the development of railway project as well. While the focus has been shifted to railway, one needs to observe the sluggish pace of work with Tribhuvan International Airport expansion project and delay in construction of Gautam Buddha International Airport and Melamchi Water Supply Project to better understand the state of infrastructural progress in the country. Furthermore, the delay in the construction of 32.2-km road along the Mugling–Narayangadh highway serves as clear evidence for the appalling state of development in the transportation sector. Pradhan says, “If only the government manages to construct four lane road networks to China and brings Tatopani custom under full operation, half of the problem would be solved. We must prioritise reliable road networks before jumping to railway.”

Lack of project preparedness, unavailability of major framework for infrastructural development, dependency upon foreign investors and lengthy overdue procedural mechanism has held back infrastructural establishment in Nepal. Stressing that Nepal lacks major framework for infrastructural growth, Surya Raj Acharya shares, “Nepal has failed to make significant headway in infrastructure due to lack of central framework and clear vision. In the absence of such framework, there is a general tendency to politicise development issues and heavily rely upon foreign frameworks developed by donor agencies and INGOs to guide big infrastructural projects. It’s time Nepal forms its own major framework that can guide big projects like the proposed railway network.”

Another important issue at hand is Nepal’s necessity to properly utilise the resources under BRI because it is important to note that the impact of BRI will not be judged by the size of the project or the scale of investment but by evaluating the quality of the built infrastructure and its impact on the national economy. In this regard, Nepal seriously needs to assess its economic needs, compatibility, and take a firm stand against any unequal negotiation that may jeopardise the national economy in the long-run. Economist Chandan Sapkota says, “Nepal can surely utilise BRI to move ahead with big infrastructural projects but it is equally important that Nepal does not fall into the vicious cycle of large debts with China. To avoid such a catastrophic situation that threatens to plunge the country’s economy into serious debt, Nepal needs to ink agreements by minutely evaluating the long-term impact of set financial terms and condition.”

Bureaucratic hurdles are another stumbling block in the expansion of infrastructures. The Nepali bureaucracy functions at snail’s pace due to its inability to adapt with the changing trends in business, commerce and development sector.  Explaining the bureaucratic hurdles in survey of railway line, Ananta Acharya shares, “Lack of fast-track mechanism has lengthened the land acquisition and forest clearance processes. If only these matters are sorted out through one-window policy the whole project could be expedited with ease.”

Infrastructures limited to political slogans

It seems that over the years, political parties have perfected the art of capturing people’s attention by promising big on infrastructural projects. However, it is evident that such promises are limited to slogans as the series of governments have failed to actualise on such agendas manifested in election manifestos.

Hopefully, the much-needed political stability after the recent provincial and parliamentary election will play a significant role in infrastructural expansion. With the left alliance forged between the CPN-UML and the CPN-Maoist Centre securing majority in the parliamentary election, the stability in the governance might create a favourable environment to prioritise development agendas through the execution of big infrastructural projects. A highly placed source at DoRW informs, “With the left alliance victory in the election and possibility of KP Oli becoming the next Prime Minister, Chinese firms have shown great interest in the development of railway network in Nepal to expand their investment in commerce and trade.”

Along with political stability, policy reformation is also needed to put the national economy on the right track. Stressing that insufficient infrastructure is prohibiting Nepal from unleashing its full potentiality in the economic front, economist Sapkota shares, “We have quasi-political businessmen, as evident in the recent elections, forming policies that fuel personal interests rather than larger economic agendas that will benefit the nation. We have also lagged behind in infrastructural development  due to unreliable

investors who are not held accountable for their substandard works.”

Like every major infrastructural project, the future of railway connectivity to China is also likely to suffer from political upheaval and changes in policies. However, it is crucial for Nepal to prioritise expansion of railway networks within Nepal and also seek convenient connectivity with China to prove that Nepal has learned its lesson from the economic blockade of 2015 and is committed to explore trade opportunities with other countries.