The golden age of the railways was during the 19th century when the great long-distance lines crisscrossed the globe. Trains with evocative titles like the Trans-Siberian, the Orient Express, the Berlin-Basra, cast an exotic spell and remain embedded in popular memory. But war and the breakup of empires brought a halt, while changed transport technology seemed to have left the era of the railways to steam off into oblivion. However, as events have shown, the obsequies were premature: rail transport has been experiencing a remarkable revival, with networks proliferating even in unlikely places like Tibet, which earlier had been barely provided with motorable roads let alone the elaborate railway lines now to be found there.
China has been at the forefront of this new railway age. It has delved into its own history to identify trade routes across Asia and try to re-establish them as modern versions of the ancient silk roads, thereby opening up many parts of the Asian continent to new possibilities of trade and commerce. As was the case in the earlier era, the opening of new routes has a number of strategic implications: the original silk road encouraged the long-running Anglo-Russian rivalry of the 'Great Game' that dominated Asian diplomacy for a century, and the current spate of new routes has stirred up the region, as for instance through new trans-Himalayan access from remote parts of Asia to the Indian heartland. Opening up distant places brings its own challenges.
It is thus of real interest that India should have taken the lead in pioneering an effort to establish a long-range freight train service between Dhaka and Istanbul. This will knit together regions that were once bound closer together but have become separated though they still have much to offer each other. To get the project moving, it is planned as an initial step to call a meeting of experts to make a technical assessment of the proposal. Sending a train laden with containers all the way from Dhaka to Istanbul would be a journey of several thousand kilometres, which in concept and ambition is a project scarcely less demanding than the newly conceived rail route from Shanghai in China across Russia to Western Europe, that has already been put through a trial run.
Initial assessment suggests that there should be no insuperable difficulty in operationalizing the projected route. After all, for much of the way it would follow the established railway lines in India that go back to British times and need only refurbishment of neglected or disused parts. In some measure, the new route would be a parallel to the revived silk route being promoted by China, both ventures being aimed at reviving thoroughfares that once thrived but are now fallen into disuse. It is worth recalling that as late as the mid-1960s the preferred route from South Asia to the UK for economy-minded travellers was by rail, with through trains available most of the way except for a few stretches in Iran. That facility for the needy traveller did not survive the Indo-Pak war of 1965 after which passenger movement across South Asia was greatly restricted. Nor since then, despite a sheaf of bilateral agreements promising better, has the position improved.
The problems of revival are not so much technical as political. In its dealings with India, Pakistan enjoys the advantage of dominating the land routes leading out of the sub-continent, a situation from which it has derived much strategic benefit. Pakistan became a partner of choice for the West during the Cold War, and more recently, has developed a strong partnership with China, as seen in the development of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) that grows out of the geographical proximity of the two countries. The fallout of CPEC and of other Chinese-led initiatives in the region has not been conducive to better regional understanding; especially troubling to Indian policy makers is the decision of its sponsors that CPEC should traverse POK, that is to say, pass through territory legitimately claimed by India. The problem could be bypassed by selecting an alignment for the Dhaka-Istanbul railway that takes it well clear of all contested areas; theoretically it should be possible to follow the older railway alignment to the Iranian border at Zahidan, the route preferred by indigent South Asians in earlier years.
Turning back the clock may be difficult, and to make progress with the Dhaka-Istanbul project would require the participation of Pakistan. In the present unfriendly state of Indo-Pak relations this may become the biggest obstacle, for bilateral relations are disturbed, the rhetorical levels are high, and Pakistan has progressively closed off transit routes towards India, so that the age-old passage of people and goods between Afghanistan and India has become a fading memory. In present circumstances, effective implementation of the scheme would require cooperation and participation by Pakistan, for which revival of moribund transit links would be necessary. Notwithstanding the many difficulties that lie in the way, the Dhaka-Istanbul rail transport initiative is a big idea commensurate with the need of the times and it offers advantages to all of the potential participants.
This is thus a major diplomatic challenge for India, and for other countries that have signalled interest in taking it forward. Officials of some of the countries involved are to meet before long for more detailed discussions, but even at this stage, as a result of the preliminary talks that have already taken place, it can be seen that the technical issues to be negotiated are likely to be manageable and should not hold up the project unduly. What is less predictable is the political will of the participants and their readiness to find solutions for the inevitable problems that such a far-reaching project will entail. As prime backer of the idea, India will no doubt push for it, the more so after Prime Minister Modi's sweeping electoral success which could encourage diplomatic activism.
The timing of the initiative seems to suggest that India would not wish to be left behind at a time when strong new ideas and initiatives from other sources seem to be re-shaping the world. Hence at this juncture it is interesting that some signs of re-casting ways of dealing with Pakistan are to be seen in New Delhi. After a long hiatus, India has agreed to participate in a meeting of the Indus Waters Commission, and three Indian Members of Parliament are to visit Pakistan for a meeting of Asian Parliamentary Assembly. Maybe the pendulum is swinging and we are once more beginning to edge towards re-assessment of the need for resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue.
The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.