In 2003, NDA-I charted out plans for developing Chabahar port of Iran to bolster India’s pursuit for enhanced connectivity. But for the next 13 years, sanctions and lackadaisical Indian approach failed make perceptible progress. With signing of India-Iran-Afghanistan Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of Internal Transport and Transit Corridor, Prime Minister Modi on his visit to Iran in 2016 infused fresh momentum to this project. Modi reiterated India’s fervid interest in developing strategically located Chabahar that can potentially circumvent territorial encumbrances posed by Pakistan. Owing to India’s poor reputation in implementation of projects, strategists and especially Iranians were skeptical about actualization of the project. Chabahar located in Iran’s South Coast of Sistan-Baluchistan province, lies outside Persian Gulf can be easily accessed from India’s west coast. It is 400 km from Gwadar port developed by China under CPEC, by land and 72km away by air. Strategically, Chabahar port will not only counter China’s presence in Arabian Sea but will open new vistas of economic opportunities for India. Besides, by operating in the Gulf of Oman, India can quickly mobilize help in the event of humanitarian crisis or emergency evacuation. Till now Bandar-Abbas port of Iran could process ships of 100,000 metric ton and hence larger ships are first off-loaded at Jebel Ali port of UAE. Chabahar being a deep port can handle very heavy vessels.
Afghanistan is a land-locked country and relied heavily on Pakistan and its Karachi port for sending goods to India. For long, India persuaded Pakistan to permit entry of Afghan trucks to the Indo-Pakistan Attari border at Punjab. But Pakistan out rightly refused to allow the passage of Indian goods through its territory. To smoothen hassles of connectivity between the three nations, India pushed hard for inclusion of Afghanistan in the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). In 2007, Afghanistan became member of SAARC. Even then Pakistan firmly stood its ground. By 2010, Pakistan and Afghanistan signed Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) whereby Afghan trucks could enter till Tokhram gate while Indian goods were still denied transit through Pakistani land. All these years, Afghan goods to be shipped to India were offloaded at Torkham gate and reloaded onto the Pakistani trucks which carried them to the Wagah border. Empty Pakistani trucks returned home after delivering Afghan goods. Pakistan’s intransigence drastically affected the trade between India and Afghanistan. In 2016, Afghanistan threatened Pakistan of blocking Islamabad’s access to Central Asia. But Pakistan refused to budge. Initially India and Iran signed an agreement to develop Chabahar port, to reduce dependence on Pakistan. But dogged by Pakistan’s implacability, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a connectivity agreement. Intriguingly, while India bestowed MFN status to Pakistan, the later kept India out of APTTA. Similarly, Pakistan denied overland access to India for trade with Central Asian Republic (CAR)s. As a result, for over three decades, India failed to substantially nurture trading ties with CAR since their existence in 1992. Left with no other alternative India of shipping goods to Afghanistan, India began operating expensive air freight corridors. Holding to its ground of refurbishing trade links with Afghanistan, first Indian flight carrying 100 tonnes of cargo reached Kabul in June. Efforts are now on to commence more flight services from Amritsar to Kabul.
On December 3rd, Iranian President Rouhani inaugurated first phase of the four phase Chabahar port giving a major fillip to India’s ambitions of expanding its connectivity network. A day ahead of the inauguration, Sushma Swaraj made an unannounced stopover at Tehran on her way back from Sochi where she attended the annual summit of heads of government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization indicating India’s commitment to build strong ties with Iran. In addition, Minister of state for finance and Shipping Ponniah Radhakrishnan represented India at the inauguration of first phase of Shahid Behesti (Chabahar) port. India has committed $500 million towards development of Chabahar port complex and SEZ complex for increased connectivity to Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia. Sixty representatives from 17 countries attended the inauguration ceremony and Iran offered management rights of Phase I to India. Japan is believed to collaborate with India for port development. India offered $235 million towards phase II and obtained rights to operate two berths and few terminals. The second trilateral ministerial conference decided to finalize the protocols related to transport and transit, ports, custom procedures, and consular affairs reiterating need for developing Chabahar as a commercial hub.
A month ahead of the inauguration, India sent 1.1 lakh tonnes of Wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar port signaling its intent of significantly upgrading trading links with Afghanistan. This shipment not only exemplified India’s renewed commitment towards rebuilding of Afghanistan but diminished the stranglehold of Pakistan. The shipment which was dispatched on October 29th from the Kandla port in Gujarat reached Nirmoz province in Western Afghanistan on November 11th. From Chabahar, the shipment reached Zahedan by road built by Iran. Original plan, envisaged construction of a railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan in collaboration with India’s IRCON and Construction, Development of Transport, and Infrastructure Co, of Iran. As of now, the rail line is still under construction. Iran on its part, developed the Zahedan-Zaranj road on the Afghanistan border. India constructed $135 million Zaranj to Delaram highway in Afghanistan. By successfully harnessing the potential of the alternative connectivity circuit, Modi government for the first time phenomenally raised India’s stature by walking the talk. India is planning to send six more shipments over next few months.
Indian efforts were lauded by America which in its recently unveiled South Asian Policy sought greater role for India in stabilizing Afghanistan. Surprisingly, Trump administration which harbored inimical approach towards Iran and sought annulment of the historic nuclear deal, raised no objections to India using Chabahar port of Iran for shipment of goods to Afghanistan. America’s acquiescence can potentially alter the regional geopolitical calibrations and may pave way for changing US’s stance towards Iran. Curiously, US didn’t raise objection to the operationalization of Chabahar, which was constructed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard affiliated company Khatam al-Anbia. Operationalization of Chabahar port seems to have deferred America’s decision of decertifying Iran for a while. By consequence, even the fear of economic sanctions has evaporated into thin airs for time being. Else, economic sanctions can critically hamper the construction and economic activity at the port.
Moreover, Iran is gateway for the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), an ambitious connectivity network of intricate rail and road routes to Russia, Central Asia, and Europe. India, Iran and Russia the founding members of this connectivity project signed an agreement in 2002 to develop multimodal route. But unfortunately, sanctions on Iran dented the progress. Initially countries agreed on the planned route of Mumbai in Delhi to Bandar-Abbas and Bandar-e-Anzali in Iran to Astrakhan and Moscow in Russia across the Caspian Sea. With the opening of phase I of Chabahar, INSTC might consider using Chabahar instead of Bandar-Abbas. With China making rapid inroads into the Eurasian region through the CARs Modi stressed the need for expediting the North-South corridor to realize the untapped economic potential the regions offer. INSTC is now expanded to include 11 new members-Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus, Oman, Syria, and Bulgaria. This corridor would immensely help India in consolidating economic and traditional ties with Central Asian and Eurasian countries.
Plagued by lethargy and indifference, for decades, India has been on a back foot and never made fervent efforts for painstakingly building connectivity hubs to explore potential markets. India is now enthusiastically reclaiming and restructuring various connectivity networks with renewed vigor. India’s ongoing connectivity projects in the North East, Bangladesh, Sagarmala, active persuasion of BBIN and rediscovery of the old routes to connectivity through BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral for Technical and Economic Cooperation) stands testimony to Delhi’s commitment to fast-track connectivity. Actualization of first phase of Chabahar port exemplifies India’s new approach. There are concerns of economic viability of Chabahar on long run since the region is peppered with a mosaic of ports which include-Khalifa port of Abu Dhabi, Duqm Port of Oman and Gwadar in Pakistan. Further, there are widespread speculations regarding the full-fledged development of Chabahar owing to brewing chaos and hostility in Middle East. As of now, India has undoubtedly put its best foot forward. May this propitious beginning steadily enhance trading potentialities of India and further its outreach in its sphere of influence, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Pic Credit: By Amirhossein Nikroo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27409750
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