Nepal, Dec 14 (AP/UNB) — 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.
Despite great hopes among those awaiting the new train it's unclear exactly when passenger service will start. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been expected to travel by train to Janakpur in December to inaugurate the new line during a popular Hindu festival but that plan has been cancelled.
India traditionally has had major influence in Nepal economically, socially and culturally. It surrounds Nepal on three sides and has open borders. Indian leaders who head the world's biggest democracy are keen to counter what they view as Nepal's recent tilt toward China, a communist-ruled country.
India was instrumental in helping Nepal establish democracy in 1950 and bring it back in 1990, when a popular uprising forced the king to give up autocratic power and bring in a multiparty system. But Nepal's communist party won control of government in elections last year.
Nepal's prime minister, Khadka Prasad Oli, signed an agreement during a recent visit to Beijing on surveying for possible train links from the Nepal capital Kathmandu to the Chinese border in the north and other parts of the country.
China is building two airports, highways, city roads, hydropower plants and a cement factory. India has also invested in hydropower plants, transport and rail links.
During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Nepal earlier this year India committed to conducting a survey on building a rail link from Kathmandu to the Indian border.
The Indian side may be falling behind in the influence sweepstakes. At an investor's conference last year, China pledged to invest $8 billion in Nepal compared to $317 million by India. This year, according to Nepal Investment Board, China has invested $471 million while India has committed only $51 million.
"Investment from both China and India are in the rising trend. It appears they are both competing with investments, but it is a healthy competition which is beneficial for Nepal," said Uttam Wagle, a Nepal Investment Board spokesman.
The new train connection is expected to give India a boost. And when it comes to railways, it already has an advantage since Nepal's border with China is mountainous while the frontier with India is in the plains, said Dhruba Hari Adhikary, an independent analyst based in Kathmandu.
"India has overtaken China in terms of connectivity by train because they have already laid down the tracks and the system could function immediately, but the Chinese plan is still on paper only," Adhikari said.
India, Dec 14 (Xinhua/UNB) - At least seven people were killed and three others injured after a vehicle carrying them fell into a gorge in Indian-controlled Kashmir, police said Friday.
The accident took place in mountainous Reasi district, about 210 km south of Srinagar city, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The cause of accident was being ascertained, police said.
According to officials, the vehicle was carrying people attending a wedding.
Last week 13 people were killed and 19 others injured after a passenger bus skidded off the road and fell into a gorge in region's Poonch district.
Deadly road accidents are common in India due to overloading, bad condition of roads and reckless driving.
According to officials, an average of over 400 deaths take place every day in India due to road accidents.
Sri Lanka, Dec 14 (AP/UNB) — Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that President Maithripala Sirisena's order to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections was unconstitutional, a much-anticipated verdict that further embroils the Indian Ocean nation in political crisis.
A seven-judge bench of the highest court said Thursday the president lacks the power to dissolve Parliament at will before 4 ½ years from the day of its first sitting, citing a constitutional amendment that was passed in 2015, according to opposition counsel Jayampathy Wickramaratne.
Sri Lanka's crisis began in October when Sirisena abruptly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place, the culmination of years of infighting over Wickremesinghe's economic reforms and his efforts to investigate abuses during Sri Lanka's long civil war, which ended in 2009. The military under Rajapaksa has been accused of some of the abuses.
"This is a historic judgment delivered by the Supreme Court; for the first time an act of the president has been challenged. That was possible because of the 19th amendment. Prior to that when the president was in office, he had full immunity," said M.A. Sumanthiran, an opposition lawmaker and lawyer who argued for the petitioners.
"We are glad that the conclusion arrived at is unanimous," he said.
While political norms dictate that Sirisena respects the verdict, the court has little ability to force him to do so, legal experts said.
Wickremesinghe, however, said in a Twitter message that Sirisena will "promptly respect the judgment of the court."
Soon after being appointed prime minister, Rajapaksa sought to secure a majority in Parliament but failed. In response, Sirisena dissolved Parliament and ordered new elections, but those actions were put on hold by the Supreme Court.
Since then, Rajapaksa has been defeated twice in no-confidence motions in Parliament and has had his and his ministers' budgets stripped by majority votes.
Nevertheless, Sirisena has resisted calls to reappoint Wickremesinghe, ignoring warnings that such a refusal could amount to a breach of the constitution.
Wickremesinghe on Wednesday won the support of 117 members in the 225-member Parliament to function as prime minister.
Lawmakers could attempt to impeach Sirisena, but that requires two-thirds of the votes in Parliament, and Wickremesinghe commands only a simple majority.
Last month's no-confidence votes against Rajapaksa descended into chaos, with his supporters occupying the speaker's chair and throwing books and water mixed with chili powder to try to prevent a vote. The speaker announced that the votes were passed by voice and that there was no longer a prime minister or Cabinet.
However, Rajapaksa continued in office with Sirisena's backing. Lawmakers opposed to Rajapaksa filed another petition at the Court of Appeal, which ordered him and his ministers to stop functioning in their positions until the case is concluded.
With Sri Lanka effectively lacking a functioning government, some officials worry it will be unable to pass a budget to finance government activities beyond 2018.
Ankara, Dec 13 (AP/UNB) — A high-speed train hit a railway engine and crashed into a pedestrian overpass at a station in the Turkish capital Ankara on Thursday, killing nine people and injuring 47 others, officials said.
The 6:30 a.m. (0330 GMT) train from Ankara to the central Turkish city of Konya collided head-on with the engine, which was checking the tracks at the capital's small Marsandiz station, Transport Minister Mehmet Cahit Turhan told reporters after inspecting the site. The high-speed train transits that station without stopping.
At least two cars derailed, hitting the station's overpass which then collapsed onto the train.
Three engine drivers and six passengers were killed in the crash, Turhan said. One of the passengers died of injuries after being hospitalized while others were killed at the scene.
Television footage showed emergency services working to rescue passengers from wrangled cars and debris. Hurriyet newspaper said sniffer dogs assisted efforts to find survivors.
Turhan said everyone had been removed from the debris and no one else was believed to be trapped.
It wasn't immediately clear if a signaling problem caused the crash. Ankara Gov. Vasip Sahin said a technical inspection has begun while NTV television, quoting unnamed officials, said three prosecutors were assigned to investigate.
In July, 10 people were killed and more than 70 injured when most of a passenger train derailed in northwestern Turkey, after torrential rains caused part of the rail tracks to collapse. Last month, 15 people were injured when a passenger train collided with a freight train in Turkey's central province of Sivas.
Konya, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) south of Ankara, is home to the tomb of the Sufi mystic and poet Jalaladdin Rumi, attracting thousands of pilgrims and tourists. The crash occurred during an annual week of remembrance for Rumi when many travel to Konya to watch Whirling Dervishes perform.
Kuala Lumpur, Dec 12 (AP/UNB) — Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged Wednesday with tampering with the final audit report into a defunct state investment fund, adding to a long list of corruption allegations against him since his ouster in May elections.
Najib was charged along with Arul Kanda Kandasamy, the former head of the 1MDB fund, which is being investigated in the U.S. and other countries for alleged cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.
Najib pleaded not guilty to abusing power to order the modification of the report in February 2016 before it was presented to the Public Accounts Committee, in order to protect himself from disciplinary and legal action. Kandasamy, who was detained overnight by anti-graft officials, pleaded not guilty to abetting Najib.
The charges came after the auditor-general revealed last month that some details had been removed from the 1MDB report. Kandasamy led 1MDB from 2015 until he was terminated in June. The two men were released on bail, and face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.
Najib set up 1MDB when he took power in 2009 to promote economic development, but the fund amassed billions in debts. U.S. investigators say Najib's associates stole and laundered $4.5 billion from the fund, including some that landed in Najib's bank account.
Public anger over the scandal led to the defeat of Najib's long-ruling coalition in May 9 elections and ushered in the first change of power since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957.
The new government reopened the investigations stifled under Najib's rule. Najib, his wife and several top-ranking former government officials have been charged with multiple counts of corruption, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.
Najib, 65, has accused the new government of political vengeance.