The Railway route shown here is only representational

Survey completed for first ever Bhutan-India rail link from West Bengal to Samtse and construction to start within a year

Will facilitate boulder exports by linking up to Bangladesh

The Indian Railways have completed a field survey of the first ever railway line between Bhutan and India which will be a 37.5 km stretch between Mujnai in West Bengal and Neyopaling village under Phuentshopelri Gewog in Samtse.

The location is somewhere close to Gomtu according to the Foreign Minister Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji whose ministry received a copy of the study recently from the Indian government.

The Foreign Minister said that this 37.5 km route was found to be the most feasible as it also skirted populated areas in West Bengal. With the survey done construction of the project is expected to start within the next one year.

The minister said that the railway link connecting Samtse will be crucial as this line can be used to export boulders on to Bangladesh. Lyonpo said the railway line from Mujnai will already be connected to the Indian railway line that has a link point to Bangladesh at Chirahati-Haldibari from where Indian trains enter Bangladesh.

Its location near the industrial town of Gomtu will also help industries there in both import and export.

However, it will not benefit an industrial estate coming up near Samtse town or Phuentsholing for that matter as the road journey would be around 2 hours to reach Gomtu for either place and both town can access other railway points in West Bengal like Hashimara for Phuentsholing.

Lyonpo said that the government soon after coming to office in 2018 took up the matter of the rail link with the Indian government and he had taken it up during the visit to Delhi too and during the visit of the Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar.

There was a positive commitment on the matter.

The issue also came up for discussion when India’s Railway Minister Piyush Goel had come for the India-Bhutan Start-up Summit earlier this year.

According to news reports  in India, the Indian Railways is also expected to sign an MoU with the State Mining Corporation to get the ballast or stones to lay the railway tracks on.

The foreign minister said that the government has been discussing officially with the Bangladesh government through its Ambassador here in Thimphu to allow the use of this railway line to export boulders to the country.

He said that Bangladesh has agreed and an official announcement would be made to that effect in 6th November 2020 when both countries would celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties.

He said that India was also positive about this and had given an in-principal approval.

As early as 2007 the Indian government had come up with plans to give five railways links to Bhutan.

In May 2008 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had come to Bhutan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visiting Bhutan where the Prime Minister announced the 18 km Nehru Golden Jubilee Rail Link from Hashimara to Toribari near Pasakha.

However, soon after the announcement it ran into local problems as local residents and tea estate owners opposed the project going through their land.

The West Bengal government in 2011 informed that the people being displaced would be local tribals and people of Nepali origin and that this would be ‘an extremely sensitive issue in the already overcharged ethno-political environment of North Bengal.’ The reference here is to the Gorkhaland movement which was at its peak at the time.

The alternative route was to take the train route through more forested areas and here the Railway Ministry was to check with the Ministry of Environment and Forests which appears to also have raised environmental issues at the time shutting down either possibilities for the project.

In November 2014 the project received a formal burial during the visit of the former and Late Indian President Pranabh Mukherjee.

The Press Secretary in a press conference in Bhutan said that unfortunately both the two proposed routes; Hashimara to Phuentsholing and Hashimara to Toribari of the Golden Jubilee Railway Line, pass through tea garden estates or forest land. He said the conservation and livelihood aspects of these areas cannot be neglected.

In 2018 talk of railways connections to Bhutan started making the rounds again when the Northeast Frontier Railway submitted feasibility studies to India’s Ministry of External Affairs on rail connectivity to Bhutan.

The five feasible rail link routes were Kokhrajhar, Assam to Gelephu (57 km), Pathsala, Assam to Nanglam (51.15 km), Rangiya, Assam to Samdrupjongkhar (48 km), Banarhat, West Bengal to Samtse (23 km) and the old line between Hashimara to Phuentsholing (17.52 km).

This was reported to be part of the Indian Government’s Act East policy to provide better linkages to countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh to the North-East region of India.

With the Hashimara project already shot down a few years ago the question that now hangs over the other links to Bhutan apart from Samtse is viability.

The Foreign Minister said that link to places like Samdrupjongkhar may not be feasible but a link to Gelephu might be possible in the future.

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