Jul 15, 2016

China all set to bungle India’s Rail Legacy in Kenya

The colonial British viewed the railway as a good way to open up the interior of Kenya and countering the ambitions of Germany in the region.
The colonial British viewed the railway as a good way to open up the interior of Kenya and countering the ambitions of Germany in the region.
Nairobi: Lawyer Nitin Shah looked out wistfully from his office window in central Nairobi at railway tracks snaking away from the Kenyan capital’s railway station, then sighed and turned around.
His ancestors had helped build the notorious British East African Railway network that in the late 1800s connected Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast to the continent’s landlocked interiors at the cost of four Indian workers’ life per mile.
The Indians, brought by the British as labourers and managers, who survived the construction of the rail network and stayed on formed the first Indian diaspora community in East Africa and are today the region’s wealthiest social group.
But a $14 billion Chinese-funded new rail network that will connect Mombasa to Kampala in Uganda, Juba in South Sudan and Kigali in Rwanda is expected to replace the old, rusting lines by June next year. It promises 120km per hour trains that will allow travellers to cover the 480km Nairobi-Mombasa journey in four hours – it currently takes 12 hours.

Punjabi and Rajasthan engineers and laborers had the skills the British required due to their experience in building railways in India for much of the later half of the 19th century.
The investment, the single largest infrastructure project in the history of Kenya, has also driven mammoth imports of steel from China in recent months that have allowed Beijing to replace New Delhi as Nairobi’s top trading partner for the first time ever.
India’s legacy in East Africa is under threat. But the man best positioned to lead an Indian counter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appeared unaware of the enormity of the challenge, twice referring to outdated statistics and not once to the new reality during his visit to Kenya, the region’s largest economy, that culminated yesterday.
Brought over by the British from India to build the railways, Indians in Kenya played a pivotal role in developing East Africa
Brought over by the British from India to build the railways, Indians in Kenya played a pivotal role in developing East Africa
“Indian companies have just not been investing as much in infrastructure in East Africa as China,” Gerrishon Ikiara, an economist and foreign policy analyst at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Diplomacy and International Studies told. “And over the past year and a bit, China has overtaken India as Kenya’s trading partner.”
The new railway network will run on a standard gauge connecting Mombasa to Nairobi in the first phase, and then to Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border. From there, it will continue into Uganda all the way to Kampala, the country’s capital. The rail lines will fork at Kampala – one going to Juba in South Sudan, the other to Kigali in Rwanda.
  • Indian migrants flocked to Kenya just over a century ago to build railways
  • Lion attacks and diseases such as black fever were just a couple of the dangers workers on the railways faced
  • Many descendants of those Indian migrants are today successful business owners across Kenya
  • Some say that the Indian community has still not fully integrated into Kenyan society
The new line starting from Mombasa has already reached the town of Machakos, just 63km southeast of Nairobi. There, workers and technicians were on Tuesday laying tracks and taking measurements amid heightened security because of fears of attacks from the terror group, Al Shabaab. Kenya fears the group may want to make the iconic new rail network a target.
The new rail line will run parallel to Kenya’s main A109 highway that connects Nairobi and Mombasa, its two biggest cities, serving as a ready reminder of the network’s construction by the China Road and Bridge Corporation.
The demand for import of steel and machinery for the mammoth railway has given China a chance to outstrip India as Kenya’s top trading partner.
But Modi, seemingly unaware, twice referred to India as “Kenya’s largest trading partner and second-largest investor” yesterday: first after meeting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and then before business leaders from the two countries.
Officials later confirmed to this newspaper that Modi had quoted 2014 figures, when India’s bilateral trade with Kenya stood at $4.2 billion, just above China’s. Since then, the Indian ministry of commerce’s own figures show that bilateral trade with Kenya has slumped to just $3.2 billion in 2015-16, while China’s has risen to $4.8 billion.
Modi did make some investment announcements while in Kenya. These include two soft loans – $15 million for the revival of a textile factory and $30 million for fostering small and medium enterprises in Kenya. Chennai-based Apollo Hospitals and Pune-based Ruby Hall Clinic also inked agreements with African counterparts to set up facilities in Kenya.
“In India’s case, I think we need to be a little patient, because the government can only do so much, and it is mostly the private sector that will have to decide to invest more in Africa,” Ruchita Beri, an Africa specialist at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told this newspaper over the phone. “And I think Indian companies are interested in Africa.”
But in a region, East Africa, where the Indian diaspora is more economically influential than in any other part of the world, some observers said they found India’s inability to compete better with China puzzling.
“India has such long-standing relations with Africa, especially East Africa,” Bernard Namunane, political editor of the Nation Media Group, the largest private media house in East and Central Africa told. “Yet it is China that comes in and makes the big investments. I don’t know why that happens.”
Building those “long-standing relations” wasn’t easy, as families like Shah’s know well. Shah heard the stories from his grandfather, who in turn heard them from his grandfather – tales that historical chroniclers of the British East African rail network have also detailed.
The British brought nearly 32,000 Indian workers and accountants to East Africa on the rail lines that were aimed at maintaining the clout of their empire in a region where Germany was making inroads, during what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa.”
Constructions on the first phase of the rail network, connecting Mombasa to mines just inside present day Uganda – a distance of just over 600 km – left 2498 Indian workers dead and over 6000 incapacitated by injuries.
Some of those who survived returned, while the rest stayed back. They’ve remained in Kenya, through political upheaval, attacks, and economic instability. “If Kenyans today understand Indians so well, and talk of an old bond, it is because of these sacrifices,” Shah said.
Modi too referred to these sacrifices, at a speech on Monday during a banquet thrown in his honour by the Kenyan President.
“Thousands of Indians were brought here to build railways in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Modi recalled yesterday while addressing an India-Kenya business forum. “India and Kenya have had a very special relationship.”
But he did not show adequate recognition, Shah said, of the challenge India faces in maintaining the specialty of that relationship, in the face of giant Chinese investments that have shown no signs of reducing despite the country’s slowdown.
If India doesn’t make the investments that will compete with China, its legacy in East Africa will not remain untouched for very long, he cautioned.
“You can build on your historical advantage, water it, make it flourish still further,” Shah said. “Or you can allow it to disappear as a footnote of history.”

The Indian migrants who built Kenya’s ‘lunatic line’

Every week, Inside Africa takes its viewers on a journey across Africa, exploring the true diversity and depth of different cultures, countries and regions.
At the Old Port in Mombasa, southern Kenya, tranquil waters lap gently against the shore beneath the ghostly Fort Jesus garrison.
Today, it’s a pretty and peaceful scene, but one that belies the port’s bustling colonial past.
It was at this spot just over a century ago that the ancestors of Kenya’s successful Indian community first set foot on African soil.
The 625 mile track was soon christened the “lunatic line” due to the dangers posed by wildlife and disease during its construction. Workers were subjected to attacks by lions and many contracted Malaria. By the time construction was finished around 2,500 had lost their lives, equating to four dead men for every mile of track. Today, many of the families of many Indian laborers who moved to Kenya to work on the railways can be found in various towns and cities along the tracks.
They came in ships and dhows, having been coaxed here to build one of the continent’s great railways.
As that railway – which was soon christened the “lunatic line” because of its high cost and the dangers faced by those constructing it – snaked through the country towards Uganda in the years that followed, so did the Indian community.
The economic and cultural roots they laid down beside the tracks remains to this day.
“(My family is involved) in quite a lot,” said one businesswoman of Indian heritage we meet in a nearby restaurant. “We have commodities, transport and various other things.”
She tells us her grandfather first came to Kenya to work on the railways and her family has been there ever since.
Her colleague chimes in that “Indians have been traders and economically they play a very big role in the Kenyan economy.”
At a spice shop just down the road, meanwhile, the third generation Indian owner tells me that Kenyan Asians are spread widely across industries like construction, retail and tourism.
The winds of trade
Of course, merchants from erstwhile unified India (and also comprising of Pakistan) had come to Mombasa long before the railway.
The trade-routes linking East Africa and Asia were already well established.
Mombasa had been a city-state for over 2,000 years bearing long and fruitful relations with the Middle East, Asia and the Far East.
In the port’s heyday “there was ivory being sold like the way we sell cakes now or mahamris as we call them,” said historian Satmbuli Abdillahi Nassir. “There was rhinoceros horns … there was dry skin, there was spices, all this was happening at this port.”
It was the railway lines, however, and the need for labor that first brought a mass migration of people from the sub-continent.
By the mid-1890’s, the British were effectively in control of Kenya and were keen to open up the country’s interior and that of neighboring Uganda to counter German influence in the region.
Having started construction of railway lines in India nearly 50 years earlier, Punjabi engineers and laborers had the skills the British required.
The lion’s share
More 30,000 indentured Indian workers were soon enticed to sail to Mombasa and a new life in Africa.
Indians building Kenyan Railways
The Kenya-Uganda Railway, otherwise known as the “lunatic line”
The country these expectant migrants found upon arrival, however, was vastly different to the land of comparative business opportunity their ancestors inhabit today.
Work on the railways was brutally hard. By the time it had reached its destination in Kisumu on the banks of Lake Victoria, roughly 625 miles from Mombasa, around 2,500 men had died. That’s four people for every mile.
And it wasn’t just the oppressive heat and long hours workers had to contend with.
The man eaters of Tsavo were a pair of lions that killed anywhere between 28 and more than 100 workers during the building of the railway, depending which account you believe. They spread such terror that work stopped until they were eventually shot.
On top of that, there was also sickness and disease to contend with.
“Many people died of malaria and black fever when they were building because of the difficult terrain and there were no medical facilities resulting (in) many deaths,” said Komal Shah, whose ancestors settled just outside Nairobi after the railway was built.
“They had to take risks coming to this place,” she added.
Melting pot
Shah is one of the many Kenyan Asians who today run their own businesses in the Westlands and Parklands districts of the Kenyan capital.
She teaches the ancient Indian discipline of yoga, a far cry from the grueling and punishing work of the railway lines.
But the history and contribution of Shah’s ancestors in building the community and the infrastructure of the country make her proud of her roots.
“I would not like to be distinguished as a Kenyan from a different region of the world,” Shah said. “I am born here and a third generation Asian Kenyan. I proudly say that I am a Kenyan.”
Such open and patriotic sentiments aren’t uniform across the country, however. Outside of the big metropolises such as Nairobi and Mombasa, there is a more complex relationship between communities.
In Kisumu, where the great railway ends, issues of integration between Kenyan Asians and black Africans remain.
Although there are rarely tensions between the groups, neither mixes fully with the other. According to local MP Shakeel Shabbir Ahmed, himself a Kenyan Asian who married a black Kenyan woman, this is something that has to change.
“There has not been a real integration (in Kisumu) … like in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam,” Ahmed said.
“In Kisumu the integration is only when it’s in the shop or at the business … but when they go out of that particular environment there is very little integration either by way of recreation or other facilities.”
While Kenyan Asian’s community makes a substantial economic contribution to wider society, Ahmed believes they should make more of an effort to mix with their compatriots and refrain from being “insular.”
“We are less than 1.4% (of the population) here in Kenya but we hold the purse strings to maybe 30% or 40% of the economy,” Ahmed estimates.
“(But) we must remember that if we earn here, we live here, we must contribute to this country.”
That’s a sentiment that the very first Indian emigres to set foot in this beautiful country would have doubtless agreed with.