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India expedites plan to connect Bhutan via rail as China pushes hard along LAC

NEW DELHI: India has decided to expedite construction of railway link with Bhutan as part of efforts to expand connectivity initiatives with the neighbour amid China’s aggression along the Line of Actual Control and Beijing's efforts to make inroads in South Asia. The rail link connect Mujnai (West Bengal) and Nyoenpaling (Bhutan) and the lndian Ministry of Railways has already commenced a feasibility study for it, ET has reliably gathered. This proposed network, first for the Himalayan state, will smoothen cross border movement.Besides the Land Ports Authority of India has also identified Jaigaon (Alipurduar District of West Bengal) for development of an Integrated Check Post (ICP), persons familiar with the development told ET. The trade between India and Bhutan at Jaigaon-Phuentsholing border trade point is around Rs 6000 crores annually, which is much bigger in value terms compared to some of the existing ICPs. Bhutans trade with countries other than India through this border trade point is an additional 1400 crores annually. This trade point caters to around 75% of the overall trade between the two countries and around 74% of Bhutan’s overall trade with the world including India.Last week India launched a new trade route with Bhutan. Acting in response to the request of the Royal Government of Bhutan, an additional trade route under Jaigaon Land Customs Station has been opened at Ahllay, Pasakha by India on July 15. This new land route for movement of industrial raw materials and goods destined for Pasakha Industrial Estate will boost bilateral trade & commerce and lead to decongestion of vehicular traffic along the Jaigaon - Phuentsholing route.Agreement on Trade, Commerce and Transit which was last renewed in 2016 allows free trade and commerce between India and Bhutan. The said agreement also mentions about 21 entry/exit trade points between the two countries including ten trade points with Land Customs Stations (LCS) at the Indo-Bhutan border. Some of these trade points are also used by Bhutan for trade with third countries.Bhutan has also requested to notify Jitti-Nagrakata LCS as Permanent LCS as this LCS was notified as Seasonal LCS in 2013 for trade in three crops namely Orange, Ginger and Cardamom, ET has learnt. Bhutan has made the request primarily to facilitate export of boulders and river bed materials to India and Bangladesh particularly since the Bhutanese exporters are finding it difficult to export these products through the nearest Permanent LCS (Loksan-Bhimtar) due to high transportation costs and restriction on load capacity of river bridges enroute, it has been learnt. “Bhutan is India’s closest partner and India will continue to positively engage with Bhutan in an effort to boost trade between the two countries, through enhanced connectivity, among others. These efforts will further have a positive effect on the trade growth with North Eastern States of India,” a person familiar with India-Bhutan affairs told ET.