By Narendra Taneja
AS THE US prepares to quit military operations in Afghanistan, other stakeholders in the country such as India are, unsurprisingly, an anxious lot. Western powers believe that measures like strengthening the Afghan armed forces and building multiple revenue streams for Kabul will help stabilise the country that is now central to the New Central Asia Great Game. They seem confident that the measures would help keep Islamic fundamentalists, Taliban and the ISI at bay — hence, the unprecedented hurry to construct the long-planned Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan will earn handsome amounts every year in transit fees, besides access to jobs and gas.
The 1,735 km pipeline, with a total gas capacity of 90 million cubic metres per day (MMSCMD), will follow the ancient trading route to India, passing through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan, Quetta and Multan in Pakistan, before landing in Fazilka, Punjab. On completion in 2017, India is supposed to receive 38 MMSCMD of gas from the transnational pipeline.
TAPI promoters will begin international roadshows in August to lure investors and new consortium partners, mostly from countries perceived friendly by the West and, I hope, India. With more sceptics in the West than in the East, the promoters, which include New Delhi based PSU GAIL (India) Ltd, are predicted to face a tough scrutiny of the project, particularly on the issue of the pipeline’s security in battletorn Afghanistan and in the Balochistan region where Pakistan’s own domestic gas pipelines are bombed regularly by local separatists.
TAPI could become the shining symbol of the growing Indo-Pak economic cooperation
However, western powers claim they have new technologies in place that will take care of such concerns. Sure, some concerns may be overblown, but there is no doubt that TAPI will have to live with the intimidating title of the most threatened energy pipeline in the world for a long time to come. But the risk is worth taking since perceived gains in terms of building a new South Asia far outweigh apparent threats. Energy diplomats argue that TAPI can be almost fully protected by keeping it underground and by wiring it up with new-generation computer and satellite-controlled devices to report and repair any terrorist attack on an almost real-time basis. Helicopter mounted patrol and repair teams, preferably manned by locals — which would also bring in intelligence against any mischief involving locals — will add an additional element of safety.
Anyway, GAIL is confident of easily making up for any sudden supply disruption from the pipeline by pumping in more gas from its own sources and, if required, by using imported gas. The real worry is what happens if some rogue elements within the Pakistani armed forces or ISI lend support to the Taliban within their own country and in Afghanistan to mount a full-scale and dramatic annihilation of the pipeline, which, when completed, would probably become the shining symbol of the growing India-Pakistan economic cooperation on the one hand and of the deepening India- Afghanistan bonds on the other. It is no secret that hardliners of all hues in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are against the TAPI pipeline.
TAPI has the potential to be a game-changer if it is projected more as an economic cooperation initiative of the four countries involved than a geopolitical one aided by outsiders. If India has an opportunity to change the course of history by partnering in a project like TAPI, then we must avail it with full zeal and enthusiasm. TAPI can change the future of our entire region by creating a new constituency of vested interests and stakeholders in the four countries, but more importantly, in Pakistan. They may prove to be the catalysts for a new South Asia.
The US may be behind fast-tracking TAPI, but it may eventually serve India and Pakistan more than any other country. But TAPI alone would not be enough. India needs to show equal enthusiasm for the 2,775 km Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline (now in progress till Pakistan), which is often called the original “peace pipeline”. The US may have its own reasons for opposing IPI, but it is for Delhi to decide what is good for its 1.21 billion energy consumers. We need Iranian gas and, equally importantly, we need to strengthen energy ties with Iran, which has been our civilisational partner for ages.
Narendra Taneja is an Expert on energy and geopolitical issues.
Author Photo: Milind Wadekar