Delhi yet to firm Trans-Asian railway plans

Indian policy makers talk of a Delhi-Hanoi railway link as if it is not very far away from reality, but plans for linking up Indian and Myanmar railway systems have not yet been made.

"If India and Myanmar railway systems are not connected and synchronised, the Trans-Asian railway from Delhi to Hanoi will only remain a pipe dream," says Atin Sen, with 30 years experience in trans-regional logistics in Asia.

India is almost three years behind schedule in implementing the Assam-Manipur rail link that intends to put Manipur capital Imphal on the country's railway map. 

"This project has been delayed for a host of reasons, but is now picking up speed," Northeastern Frontier Railway's general manager (construction) S K Jaggi told Mizzima. "Sufficient budget has been placed at our disposal by the Indian government." 

Jaggi says the inhospitable terrain, the lack of basic infrastructure like poor or non-existent roads needed to carry construction material and the presence of several underground militant groups involved in heavy extortion have delayed work on the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal railway project. 

"The rebels have even kidnapped some workers and managers of companies involved in the construction. That has led to work stoppages," he said.

The Manipur government, he says, is now trying to combat the problem.

But extortions continue. Several companies, whose managers were contacted , said they were having to pay up several underground groups active in Manipur.

"The trouble is there are several groups and their demands for protection money seems to be competitive. If X asks for Rs 5 million, Y will ask for Rs 7 million," says the chief executive of a top Indian infrastructure company involved with the project. But he was unwilling to be named for fears of retaliation.

"Our workers and managers live in perpetual fear," he said.

Apart from the three year delay in bringing Imphal on the railway map, the Indian government is yet to conceive of carrying the railway track across the nearly 110 km hill terrain to Moreh on the Manipur-Myanmar border.

"Unless Moreh is connected by rail, there is no question of linking up to the Myanmar railway system," says logistics expert Atin Sen.
"Without that, how can we even think of a Delhi-Hanoi rail link! "

NF Railway's Jaggi says there is no plan as yet to take the railway beyond Imphal, certainly not up to Moreh on the Manipur-Myanmar border.

"A survey has been done on the Imphal-Moreh route. That is all that has happened so far," he told Mizzima."There are no plans as yet to expand the railway network beyond Imphal."

Manipur's trade economist Amar Yumnam says the Indian government should have planned the railway expansion all the way to Moreh, now that work on the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal route has progressed.

"If you don’t plan the extension to Moreh now and wait to first complete the project up to Imphal, we would be wasting several years. Can't we plan like China, block by block, but all as part of the whole and never missing the big picture," Yumnam told Mizzima.

He said that the Delhi-Hanoi rail link and the Trans-Asian highway connecting Moreh to Mae Sot in Thailand were crucial to the success of India's 'Look East' policy that current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi upgraded to 'Act East'.

India is already linking up its railway systems with Bangladesh on the Agartala-Akhaura segment that would help trains from mainland India reach the Tripura state in Northeast.

"Now if a similar link up is done with the Myanmar railways at the Moreh-Tamu segment, the Trans-Asian railways will be a reality," says Yumnan .

Manipur now has the only rail head at Jiribam which is an extension of the 1.5 km Lumding-Silchar meter gauge section in Assam.

The first phase of the project covers 84 km of the Jiribam-Tupul section .

NF Railway's Jaggi officials say the Jiribam-Tupul section will have 112 minor bridges, six major bridges, three road over bridges (ROB) and two road under bridges (RUB). 

In the first phase, there will be a total of 34 tunnels covering a total length of 39,401 meters.

The longest tunnel in Jiribam-Tupul section will be 4.9 km in length, while the longest tunnel in the Tupul-Imphal section will be 10.75 km.

The 12.5 km track linking main line from Jiribam to Dholakhal section and 1.20 km of loop line has been completed. But the rest of the Jiribam-Tupul project that was to be fully completed by March 2016 is way beyond schedule.

The railways had told Modi government that the Tupul-Imphal section covering 27 km was to be completed by March 2019 with final location survey completed.

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