Nepal-India railway service in limbo in lack of law, staffIndia handed over Kurtha-Jayanagar railroad on Friday.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
At least two roadblocks to the Nepal-India Cross Border Railway have been removed with the two countries signing a standard operating procedure for operating the railway in early October and India handing over the Kurtha-Jayanagar section of the railway infrastructure to Nepal on Friday.
But, Nepal is still far away from bringing the railway service into operation as the country lacks related law and necessary human resources. In fact, there was a law in the form of an ordinance introduced by then KP Sharma Oli-led government on May 5.
The current Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government tabled the ordinance on July 18 in parliament but it became invalid after the government failed to get a parliamentary nod within 60 days (by September 16) of its tabling in the House. Likewise, Nepal Railway Company last month fired over 150 staff hired by the previous government, leaving the company virtually staffless.
“Signing standard operating procedure and handing over railway infrastructure are two important milestones for bringing the railway service into operation,” said Keshav Kumar Sharma, joint secretary at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport. “Now, we require a law and staff to start the operation of railway service on the Jayanagar-Kurtha section of the cross-border railway.”
With all these prerequisites not being fulfilled, two Diesel Electric Multiple Unit train sets procured in September last year remain stranded in Janakpur for over a year.
“In order to operate the railway service as early as possible, the government needs to introduce an ordinance and hire staff on contract basis immediately. We have already briefed our new minister (Renu Kumari Yadav) about it,” said Sharma.
Even though the staff recruited by the previous administration at the Railway company would be useful to start the railway service at the earliest as they were also trained, the new administration at the company removed all of them saying they were ‘political appointees.’ Before their removal, the then general manager of company Guru Prasad Bhattarai had resigned the post.
Niranjan Jha, general manager of the company, told the Post last month that the staff were removed because the company needed to spend Rs6 million a month on their salaries while there was no work to do. The staff recruited on a daily-wage basis were supposed to work in track stations as signal staff.
“Now, we have asked the Nepal Railway Company to hire new staff as early as possible,” said Sharma. According to him, about 180 new staff will be required to operate the railway service.
Even though it was clear from the very beginning that there is a lack of local staff, both technical and administrative, to operate the trains, the Nepal Railway Company delayed hiring staff. Even the staff hired some months ago were fired following the change in government.
“Nepal doesn't have staff to operate the train. Everyone knew that,” Ananta Acharya, former director general at the Department of Railways, told the Post last month. “But no one paid attention to this simple fact. Don’t we need to prepare a workforce to operate the trains before their arrival?”
According to him, the company should have recruited staffers immediately after the agreement was signed with the Indian side to purchase the trains.
After the removal of daily-wage staff hired by the previous administration of the company, the company’s new general manager, Jha, had told the Post last month that the company would prioritise hiring permanent staff through the Public Service Commission.
But Joint-secretary Sharma said the constitutional body had shown its inability to recruit permanent staff immediately, opening the door for hiring staff on a contract basis.
Besides the Nepali staffers, Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd, which supplied two train sets to Nepal, will assign 26 staff, including crew members, to operate the rail service for a year. After a year, Nepali staffers will operate the service, according to Nepali officials.
For this purpose, Nepal has already made a part of an agreed payment to the Indian company, according to officials. The two sides had signed an agreement worth IRs 220 million (Rs350 million) for the procurement of equipment, human resources supply, rail and track maintenance and other operating systems.
“We have sent INR 45 million out of the agreed total of INR 220 million,” said Deepak Bhattarai, director general at the Department of Railway.
With the government yet to work out an ordinance and the Nepal Railway Company yet to start the process for hiring staff, it is not certain when the train service will come into operation.
“Our hope is that we may be able to start the railway service by the end of 2021,” said Sharma.
Officials said that with the Indian side signing the standard operating procedure and handing over the railroad, it is now Nepal’s responsibility to bring the train service into operation.
“We are now responsible for the safety and security of the railway infrastructure and operation of the railway service,” said Bhattarai. He said even though India had completed the preparations to hand over the railroad a few months ago, the change in government in Nepal and subsequent change in Nepal Railway Company administration delayed the handover process.
According to him, finalising the standard operating procedure also took time as the issue of security and other technical aspects, including the railway signal system, required negotiations between the two sides.
When it comes into operation, it will be the country’s first broad gauge railway service.
Earlier, there was a slow-moving narrow gauge railroad from Janakpur to Jayanagar that had served people from 1937 to January 2014. The railroad was first laid as a cargo line to carry timber from Nepal to India. After dismantling the narrow gauge track, a new track of broad gauge was laid with the assistance of the Indian government. The work was completed in late 2019.
“Even though the construction work was completed long ago, a lack of necessary preparations in Nepal has delayed the operation of the railway service,” said Bhattarai.