India must improve rail network

India’s plans to link Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar by train, which was announced by Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu recently, could provide a shot in the arm to sub-regional trade and travel. Overland connectivity within and between these countries is at best dismal, standing in the way of better interaction among people. At present, most interaction between these countries is restricted to air travel, which means that it is expensive in terms of costs and thus restricted to just a small number of largely elite people from these countries. Existing cross-border roads are in a shoddy condition. Besides, trucks can transport only a limited amount of cargo. It is for this reason that the proposed rail network linking India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could prove a game-changer. Already, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal are part of the BBIN group. Indian analysts have been calling for inclusion of Myanmar in this grouping, and it is heartening that the first step towards this is being taken with the railway link plan that will include Myanmar.

With India-Pakistan hostility blocking the Saarc from moving towards meaningful regional links, trade and travel, India has been exploring other sub-regional options. The railway network to its east is an important step in this direction. Additionally, it will improve India’s outreach to Southeast Asia and beyond. Cross-border travel that involves the masses would also improve interaction and understanding of each other’s cultures and way of life.

There are several challenges that the five countries will have to overcome to make the rail network a reality. One is domestic opposition to the project. The BBIN motor vehicles agreement ran aground recently when Bhutan’s upper house of parliament voted against it and thus blocked its operationalisation. Concerns over the impact of increasing traffic on the mountainous country’s fragile environment were behind the opposition. The proposed railway network could, therefore, run into stronger opposition. The governments of the participating countries must sell the idea of the rail link’s benefits to their people. Also, the success of the link plan will depend on rail connectivity in India’s Northeast, which is in a decrepit condition. Successive governments at the Centre have pledged rail development in the Northeast but done little to implement these projects. India’s neighbours are unlikely to be impressed or enthused by the cross-border rail link plan if construction of rails in the Northeast is not hastened. India and its eastern neighbours are on the right track in wanting to improve rail connectivity. The question is whether they have the political will to make it a reality.

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