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India and Nepal are set to connect via railways with new shiny rails connecting the 34 kilometres (21 miles) between Janakpur in southeastern Nepal and Jay Nagar in the Indian state of Bihar.
The railway is India's latest bid to keep its foothold in South Asia, a traditional sphere of influence, as China spends billions on its massive Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project that aims to expand trade across a vast arc of 65 countries from the South Pacific to Africa and Europe.
Connectivity in the regionOnce the new $80 million rail line begins operations, plans call for extending the railway deeper into Nepal. For now, only a dusty trail passing through villages connects Jay Nagar and Janakpur. It's mostly used by people bringing in daily goods on motorcycles and small trucks.
In the past, British who were ruling India at the time, built a narrow-gauge 2.5-foot wide track in 1937 to transport timber from Nepal. That train, with only three rusted carriages, windows lacking panes, missing doors and iffy service with an engine failing to work for days, quit running in 2014.
Railways will connect India and Nepal efficientlyMillions of Hindu devotees travel every year to the Ram Janaki temple in Janakpur, where the Hindu goddess Sita is believed to have been born and later married the Hindu god Ram.
The new line will be able to handle bigger trains carrying more passengers than the old trains, says Binod Ojha, who was supervising the project from a makeshift office at the new station, reported AP.
Apart from tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims, it also will accommodate cargo landlocked Nepal imports all of its oil, food and other goods from India, which accounts for two-thirds of its foreign trade.
"Once we start operating trains, people will be able to travel from here to New Delhi or even southern India. We will be well connected," Ojha said, adding, "Once trains begin to bring all these things from India, the cost will naturally go down. Our daily expenses will be much cheaper."
Operation date is unclearHome to Mount Everest and other peaks on the roof of the world, Nepal has limited road networks. Politicians have been promising for years to build new train lines across the mountainous country.
China and India are contesting for leverage by offering to build them, and that helped spur work on the India-funded 'Janakpur-Jay Nagar' line.
Despite great hopes among those awaiting the new train, it's unclear exactly when passenger service will start. Back in November, sources in railways told PTI that the first passenger train between Nepal and India is likely to run from December this year.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been expected to travel by train to Janakpur in December to inaugurate the new line during a popular Hindu festival but that plan has been cancelled.
India-Nepal ties and tussle with China
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Nepalese counterpart Khadga Prasad Oli, during his visit to Janaki temple in Janakpur (File Photo: PTI)
India traditionally has had a major influence in Nepal economically, socially and culturally. It surrounds Nepal on three sides and has open borders. Indian leaders who head the world's biggest democracy are keen to counter what they view as Nepal's recent tilt toward China, a communist-ruled country.
"Investment from both China and India are in the rising trend. It appears they are both competing with investments, but it is a healthy competition which is beneficial for Nepal," said Uttam Wagle, a Nepal Investment Board spokesman.
India gets ahead with rail linkThe new train connection is expected to give India a boost. And when it comes to railways, it already has an advantage since Nepal's border with China is mountainous while the frontier with India is in the plains, said Dhruba Hari Adhikary, an independent analyst based in Kathmandu.
"India has overtaken China in terms of connectivity by train because they have already laid down the tracks and the system could function immediately, but the Chinese plan is still on paper only," Adhikari said.
This article first appeared on www.indiatoday.in
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