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Race with China on Hanoi train
- PM breathes life into plan for transnational track

New Delhi, Sept. 4: India’s economic race with China will be run on railway tracks snaking across several borders.

After initiating work on a trilateral highway project linking Thailand and Myanmar with India, the Centre is mulling plans to develop a rail link between New Delhi and Hanoi.

“Work has started on a trilateral highway project linking Thailand, Myanmar and India. Under the Mekong-Ganga cooperation, we are also looking at a New Delhi to Hanoi rail link,” Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the second India-Asean business summit jointly organised by the Ficci and the CII here today.

The move is part of an effort to ratchet up trade with Asean threefold to $30 billion by 2007.

“Bilateral trade with Asean now exceeds $10 billion, but it has barely scratched the surface of its potential. We must target a turnover of $15 billion over the next two years and $30 billion by 2007,” Vajpayee said.

India has been forced into a race with China to seal a free-trade agreement in the next 10 years with the 10-nation trade bloc that has a combined gross domestic product of over $750 billion.

The Chinese have already started work on a rail link between Singapore and Kuoming in southern China with spur lines extending to most of the Asean region, which will boost trade between them.

India’s plan to build a rail link to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has been designed for two reasons.

First, it will boost trade between India and Asean substantially. Second, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar — the four newest members of Asean and all of which will be on the rail route — have been the most vocal in pushing India’s case for closer ties with Asean.

At present, there is no rail connection among Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A single line connects Malaysia with Thailand and Singapore, and southern China with Vietnam. In the eastern direction, the railroads in Myanmar stop several hundred kilometres away from its borders with Bangladesh and India.

When Vajpayee visited Phnom Penh last November for the India-Asean summit, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had suggested that India could help Cambodia build a railway network within the country that would eventually form part of a direct rail link between Singapore and Kuoming in southern China.

A senior railway board official said: “It is a 10-year-old project. It has been pending with the government which has accepted in principle the railway network proposal drafted by the transport department of United Nations Economic and Social Council for Asia Pacific (Escap).”

“A survey has also been carried out by the transport department of Escap and is pending with the home ministry. Serious objections were raised by the home ministry about the project since it could lead to an increase in the smuggling of drugs and arms from that region to militants in India,” the official said.

Several meetings were held recently with the officials of Escap, the home ministry and railway. A memorandum of understanding is likely to be signed between all the parties concerned by the year-end.

The official said funding will not be a problem since the draft study by the transport department of Escap had said that the project will attract multilateral funding since it will emerge as one of the major trade routes in Asia Pacific.

“We should focus much more on tourism, entertainment, media and culture. The collaborative potential largely remains untapped,” Vajpayee said.

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