MoIC has constituted a focal team member from two technical ministries, MoWHS and MoIC to take forward the railway project with support from NFRLY, GoI
It will not be very long before Bhutan has its first railroad connecting to India and beyond. According to Lyonpo Loknath Sharma, Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA), the 57-km railway connecting Gelephu with Kokrajhar, Assam would be completed by 2026.
“As per the Northern Frontier Railways (NFRLY), the survey and feasibility study is targeted to be completed in 6 months, and depending on the feasibility study, the entire project would be completed by 2026 including the construction of the rail link,” the economic affairs minister said.
The Minister further added that the Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC) has appointed dedicated focal team members from MoIC and the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement (MoWHS) for the railway connectivity project between Kokrajhar in Assam to Gelephu, Sarpang district.
Lyonpo further informed that the initial plan was to connect Mujnai (Birpara, West Bengal) with Pulgi, Samtse. “The proposal was discussed with the then Railway Minister of Government of India (GoI) during his visit to Bhutan in early 2020 and later this stretch was found not feasible as studied by the Ministry of Railways, GoI, and the focus shifted to connecting Kokrajhar, Assam, towards Gelephu,” Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said.
Currently, MoIC as the focal ministry on surface transport is leading the railway project. The Economic Affairs Minister also added that the government is currently, identifying routes, and docking points amongst others with support from NFRLY, GoI.
The economic affairs Minister also shared that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and its consulate office at Ghuwati is fully involved to take the project forward besides other stakeholders like MoEA and the district.
On constructing the very first railway lines in the country, the Economic Minister said that the railway links would provide much-needed alternate connectivity for a landlocked country like Bhutan to ensure backups, efficiency, consistency, and predictability for the imports and exports of commodities and other.
“As a landlocked country, the only land transportation link between Bhutan and India for export and import is through road networks. This single dependency on roads creates a great deal of economic inefficiencies and as a result high transportation and logistical costs,” Lyonpo said, adding that the railway connectivity is more efficient, faster, relatively cheaper, and can transport more freight than a road, especially for traveling longer distances and carrying higher loads.
The Indian media in June 2022, reported that after Bangladesh and Nepal, India will provide rail connectivity to Bhutan, underlining that the first-ever broad-gauge line will come up from India to Bhutan at an estimated cost of Rs 1,000 crore.
Reports said that the cross-border rail link is slated to be established between India and Bhutan as Indian Railways has undertaken an elaborate exercise to construct a broad-gauge line from Kokrajhar in India to Gelephu in Bhutan. The 57.5 km-long Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link is expected to serve the long need for rail connectivity between the two neighbouring countries.
Taking bilateral relations to new heights, India and Bhutan in January 25, 2005, signed a landmark accord for establishing rail links between bordering towns and agreed to step up cooperation in agriculture and power sectors.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), inked in the presence of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, the two sides agreed to conduct feasibility studies for the extension of the Indian railway network from West Bengal and Assam to the nearest border towns of Bhutan.
The benefits of railway links will not just benefit the people of Bhutan but everyone living close to the vicinity. With connectivity becoming very vital in exporting and importing goods, Bhutanese exports like boulders to Bangladesh will become easier. Additionally, Gelephu is strategically located in the districts of Zhemgang, Tsirang, and others. As Gelephu has been recognized as one of the points of entry, the establishment of the rail link there becomes even more pertinent.
“It will definitely be a landmark in the Indo-Bhutan relationship,” a businessman from Gelephu said. “Gelephu is also closer to eastern Bhutan, as it is just about five hour’s drive to Samdrup Jongkhar. Gelephu is also closer to Phuentsholing and Samtse; the main regions from where we export goods. Thus, the rail link will benefit the country immensely,” he said.
Sherab Dorji from Thimphu