by Gowri Dixit

Indian Railways has grown from a colonial hand-me-down to a means of displaying India’s soft power. With what started as a humanitarian gesture in the mid-1980s by supplying and building railway lines in Iraq, India’s Railway Diplomacy has come a long way.

Railway Diplomacy is a non-traditional practice of building and maintaining relations with other countries involving building a railway network.

India is aiding railway infrastructure projects in West Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa to boost investment ties and trade to make a mark for India in world affairs. As of 2018, India has committed US$ 24.2 billion in 14 years to over 60 countries as soft loans.

Most of India’s railway projects in other countries are fulfilled by the subsidiary companies of Indian Railways- Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) and Indian Railway Construction (IRCON). RITES is involved in the exports of locomotives and coaches, amongst others. It operates in 55 countries, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and other African nations. At the same time, IRCON operates in 21 countries, including India’s neighbours like Iraq, Malaysia, Brazil, the UK, Algeria, and many other African nations, where it has carried out rail line laying, modernisation of tracks, etc.

In India’s neighbourhood, Railway Diplomacy is more towards facilitating people-to-people connections. The trains Bandhan Express, Maitree Express, and Mitali Express run between India and Bangladesh, and the trains Samjhauta Express and Thar Express are operated between India and Pakistan. Considering Nepal, there is only one railway line connecting the two countries (Jaynagar-Kurtha). The project was initiated in 2014 and was fulfilled in 2022; India contributed about ₹8 crores. Under the multimodal agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN), a railway network is expected to be built between Agartala-Akhaura (India-Bangladesh), Jogbani-Biratnagar link, and Jayanagar-Bijalpura gauge conversion to Bardibas (India-Nepal), Jiribam-Moreh and rail link between Kokrajhar and Gelephu (India-Bhutan), all of these projects are still in the feasibility study phase. Another proposed railway project is the Moher-Tamu-Kaley links, which will connect India to Myanmar, which is also under feasibility study. This network from India to Myanmar also aims to connect to the Trans-Asian Railway Network, to which India is a signatory.

Considering India’s efforts and approach to using railways as a tool for diplomacy, it is evident that India is approaching railways as a soft power tool only. The focus is on making India’s presence felt more than long-term economic and geopolitical gains. For India to leverage its railway capacity, it needs to design intensive strategies aiming at more than people-to-people connections and consider avenues to build better trade relations. While concentrating on devising strategies to use railways as a potential cultural and economic influence, we must be aware of the highlights and challenges. Indian railway technology is considerably older, and while India is still a buyer of railway technology, there is an urgent need for innovation. If India wants countries to choose it as a partner in development, it must innovate in a viable manner. The second challenge is the time taken to deliver. Delay in the completion of projects is a constant factor in Indian Railway Diplomacy. India must deliver faster and better to build its reputation in the field.

The need is to foresight what returns: economic, cultural, and geopolitical India can expect with the investment made. As a long-term player in the Railway Diplomacy field, it is essential that India masters its own way of maintaining relations- the India way.

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Blog written by Gowri Dixit, Research Intern at Centre for Public Policy Research.

Views expressed by the author is personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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