The competition between two Asian giants, India and China, for influence over tiny Nepal is yielding a bonanza in the form of the Himalayan mountain nation’s first modern railway — and possibly more to come. New shiny rails connecting the 34 kilometers (21 miles) between Janakpur in southeastern Nepal and Jay Nagar in the Indian state of Bihar are raising hopes for more business and pilgrimages.The railway is India’s latest bid to keep its foothold in South Asia, a traditional sphere of influence, as China spends billions on its massive Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project that aims to expand trade across a vast arc of 65 countries from the South Pacific to Africa and Europe. Biswombar Sah, a 62-year-old farmer, is among hundreds of people in Janakpur visiting the still-under-construction rail station daily to check on its progress as workers polish the marble floors, lay tiles on the platform and paint local art on the walls of the waiting room.“These train tracks are the best thing to happen to us in a very long time. We are all thrilled about getting a modern train that will make travel so much easier and cheaper,” Sah said. Once the new $80 million rail line begins operations, plans call for extending the railway deeper into Nepal.For now, only a dusty trail passing through villages connects Jay Nagar and Janakpur. It’s mostly used by people bringing in daily goods on motorcycles and small trucks. The British, who ruled India from 1858-1947, built a narrow-gauge 2.5-foot wide track in 1937 to transport timber from Nepal. That train, with only three rusted carriages, windows lacking panes, missing doors and iffy service — the engine often broke down for days — quit running in 2014.Millions of Hindu devotees travel every year to the Ram Janaki temple in Janakpur, where the Hindu goddess Sita is believed to have been born and later married the Hindu god Ram. Restaurant owner Naresh Chandra Jha is one of many in Janakpur who view the railway as a godsend. He’s counting on a windfall from the pilgrimage trade, and on saving money thanks to lower transport costs for his supplies. “This is the biggest event for Janakpur,” he said. “It will be a big contribution for development and boost the number of religious visitors.”The new line will be able to handle bigger trains carrying more passengers than the old trains, says Binod Ojha, who was supervising the project from a makeshift office at the new station. Apart from tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims, it also will accommodate cargo — landlocked Nepal imports all of its oil, food and other goods from India, which accounts for two-thirds of its foreign trade.“Once we start operating trains, people will be able to travel from here to New Delhi or even southern India. We will be well connected,” Ojha said. “Once trains begin to bring all these things from India, the cost will naturally go down. Our daily expenses will be much cheaper.”Home to Mount Everest and other peaks on the roof of the world, Nepal has limited road networks. Politicians have been promising for years to build new train lines across the mountainous country. China and India are vying for leverage by offering to build them, and that helped spur work on the Indian-funded Janakpur-Jay Nagar line.Published in Daily Times, December 15th 2018.