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Cut off the gas, we cut off the water

By Ramananda Sengupta
December 02, 2004 13:44 IST
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Now that the photo-ops, the platitudes and declarations of mutual love and respect have been reiterated, let us review where we stand after the two-day visit by Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to India.

Here's the official Pakistani line, as per Aziz.

  • 'Progress on other issues will be made in tandem with progress on Jammu and Kashmir.'
  • Iran-Pakistan India gas pipeline a 'standalone issue.'
  • Comprehensive dialogue to continue

And here's the Indian view:

  • Kashmir? Sure, but let's move on other issues first.
  • Gas pipeline? Only as a part of wider trade interaction. (read MFN status for India)
  • Dialogue to continue…

To be fair, both sides did try to dumb down expectations before the visit.

President Musharraf went to the extent of saying that the 'light at the end of the tunnel' he had seen barely a few months ago was now fading, and he was getting 'negative vibes' from Manmohan Singh's remarks about not redrawing borders.

So here's the good part: Both sides want the dialogue to continue.

Here's the sad part: Both sides still haven't a clue about how to tackle the issue of Kashmir, where the daily dance of death continues. Soldiers, terrorists, innocents…

And here's the interesting part: The gas pipeline from Iran.

India-Iran gas pipeline: A transit challenge

It should be a major shot in the arm for the Indian economy, saving it at least $300 million a year in energy costs alone.

Some say it will even help cement peace in the region, owing to the massive economic interdependency involved.

So why did my jaw drop when I read about the sudden plans to revive talks on this 2,600-km gas pipeline from Iran to India?

Why did my eyebrows disappear into my receding hairline when sections of the Indian media started describing this proposal as 'pathbreaking and revolutionary,' a 'win-win' situation where everyone goes home satisfied?

No, I am not a hardboiled cynic who can only see the bleaker side of any situation. 

I am an optimistic pacifist, and I'll fight anyone who thinks otherwise.

I fully appreciate -- though perhaps not fully endorse -- our Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar's vision of an India criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines. Linking it inextricably with the Persian Gulf, Europe and Central Asia on one side and China, Russia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Far East on the other.

After all, money talks, and its voice is ever seductive. Even if it is just gas.

The proposal for a pipeline from Iran to India has been around in various avatars ever since Iran discovered natural gas reserves in the South Pars fields in 1988.

The main stumbling block: India's refusal to accept Pakistan (and Iran's) word that Islamabad would not use the pipeline as a political bargaining chip with India.

After all, sudden disruption --  or even the threat of sudden disruption -- of supply could severely impact India's economy, its stock markets.

Which is why despite fervent and repeated assurances from Tehran and Islamabad, New Delhi consistently cited security concerns to nix it. 

It also pointed out that Islamabad is yet to reciprocate India's granting of MFN status to Pakistan, and that while infiltration and terrorist acts in India may have declined, they have hardly ceased.

But the peace parleys initiated by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seems to have generated its own dynamics.

Indo-Pak Peace Talk: The Complete Coverage

Here's a October 1 report from Iran News:

'The previous Indian government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee even considered laying the pipeline under the sea to avoid Pakistani territory. However, that plan would cost three times more. India's new government, which took office in May, appears to have softened its stance on the pipeline proposal,' it says.

'There has been a shift on this side. Now I think India is willing to talk about the pipeline as long as other trading opportunities are also considered,' it quoted Dr Rajendra K Pachauri of TERI as saying.

Way back in June 2001, The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had this to say:

Complete coverage: Daniel Pearl murder

'Also, India's biggest private company appears to be shifting the balance in favor of an Iran pipeline. Reliance Industries Ltd., a Bombay-based polyester and petroleum company that is gearing up to challenge government monopolies in telecommunications and gas supply, recently launched a $10 million study on importation of liquefied gas from Iran to India by ship, in partnership with BP Inc. and National Iranian Oil Co. But industry officials familiar with Reliance's plans said the company is expressing interest in the pipeline option, too, because of its cost advantages and potential to provide a backup energy source for Reliance's huge industrial complex in India's northwestern Gujarat state.'

Here's Pachauri again, in his own words: 'It was in 1989 that Dr Ali Shams Ardekani, later Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, and I jointly developed a proposal for import of natural gas from Iran to India through a pipeline stretching overland across Pakistan.

'For Iran, which has huge reserves of natural gas in the southern part of that country, South Asia is clearly the most attractive market. For India, dependent as it is on an increasing volume of imports of oil, natural gas through a dedicated pipeline not only provides security of supply of a large quantity of clean fuel, but also addresses a strategic challenge which has several positive dimensions.'

'Iran says the proposed 2,600 km pipeline would save India about $300m a year in energy costs. Pakistan also would have access to the gas, and earn an estimated $600m a year in transit fees,' said the Iran News report.  

So for allowing this pipeline to pass through its territory, Pakistan would make double the money India saves every year.

I could learn to live with that, if I was sure that none of that money would be used to finance terrorist activity against India.

Those citing a decline in terrorist activity should try explaining that to the soldiers and innocents who are dying every day in the valley.

Try explaining that to army chief General N C Vij, who insists that while Indian troops are withdrawing from the valley, 'the infiltration from across the Line of Control is continuing. It has been brought down purely because of our efforts.'

Or BSF Director General Ajai Raj Sharma, who insists that ISI-calibrated 'infiltration attempts were still on and the terrorists were being given special training to negotiate the border fence,' and that at least 300 terrorists were always present on 'launching pads' waiting for an opportunity to sneak in.

'The infrastructure for exporting terror across the Line of Control is reported to be intact. The terrorist training camps have not been wound up but only shifted away from the border.'

When foreign ministers Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and K Natwar Singh met for the first time -- June 21 over lunch on the sidelines of the Asian Cooperation Dialogue in in Qingdao, China -- Kasuri urged Singh to delink talks on the pipeline from the discussion on MFN status.

Natwar, Kasuri discuss ties

He stressed this again when they met again at Jakarta July 2, where Pakistan was formally admitted to the ASEAN Regional Forum, a security-dialogue forum, and again when he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh September 6 in Delhi.

Now comes the interesting part.

An Indian Express report dated July 18 says Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar had written a letter to Manmohan Singh, suggesting 'conversation without commitments' on the gas pipeline project with Iran and Pakistan

'In fact, to push the proposal forward, Aiyar is willing to discard even the oft-trotted South Block line -- that if Pakistan is interested in seeing the pipeline running through its land, it must grant most-favoured nation status to imports from India,' says the article.

'Important, indeed crucial as these issues are to our economy, the gains from these pale in comparison to the massive gains which our country would secure from accessing Iranian gas through Pakistan,' he argued.'

According to the Express, he also 'suggested starting talks on similar lines with Bangladesh and Myanmar on the one hand and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan on the other.

'In the long run,' the article said, 'if the plan works out, he maps out an even more enchanting vision: "If we are able to link up a pipeline through Pakistan with a pipeline through Bangladesh, not only would we have a national grid for international gas, our two recalcitrant neighbours might be drawn into a network of South Asian cooperation.'

So why did I sigh  in relief when I read that despite his letter to the PM, Aiyar -- probably at the behest of the MEA and National Security Adviser J N Dixit -- refused to consider the pipeline as a 'stand alone' issue during his talks with Shaukat Aziz? 

Because 'recalcitrant' is right.

Pakistan wants a gas pipeline across its territory to India, but is unwilling to allow a reverse flow of goods or energy across Pakistani soil to Iran and Afghanistan

During his visit to Tehran October 19, J N Dixit offered to consider the pipeline if New Delhi was given 'reverse transit' access to the Central Asian republics through IranIran refused.

Bangladesh, having earlier declared that it would rather starve than sell gas to India, or allow gas from Myanmar to reach India over its soil, now seems to have seen the light. 

Now, an Indo-Myanmar gas pipeline

So what are we talking about here? 

Am I objecting to trade ties with Pakistan?

No. I firmly believe that enhancing bilateral trade is one of ways to make us better neighbours.

But to reiterate New Delhi's position, Pakistan cannot pick and choose specific areas of cooperation. You cannot say I will treat this as standalone, and link that to Kashmir.

Pressure tactics, like saying Pakistan will go ahead and sign a pipeline treaty with Iran with or without India, will also not work. (Apparently, this would involve a pipeline with a smaller diameter than the one that would be needed for India, which in turn would make it difficult for India to get on board the project at a later date).

I can understand Pakistan's wariness about granting MFN status to India, because cheaper Indian goods will necessarily swamp their market. The former militarymen who monopolise the textile and sugar industries in that country, for instance, will suddenly have competition.  But competition is the name of the game today.

I can understand Pakistan's reluctance to allow Indian goods to cross overland into Afghanistan, since it will eat into the trade between Pakistan and that country. Never mind that Pakistan's biggest import from Afghanistan is opium and its derivatives, given that Afghanistan has had a bumper crop of opium this year.

But I cannot understand Islamabad's inability to produce conclusive proof  that it no longer supports the jihadis bent on entering Kashmir to wreak havoc. 

Those who believe that these terrorists are 'standlone' items beyond Islamabad's control obviously also think that the money, training, arms and ammunition for these so-called jihadis come from thin air.

Am I objecting to Pakistan making money from the pipeline? No.

But those who believe that the lure of $600 million annually will convince Pakistan to make serious efforts to rein in the jihadi scumbags should remember that the US has given Islamabad $3 billion and counting for just that, with not much to show for it, apart from the token terrorist produced out of the hat at regular intervals.  

While a $27 million plus reward (last heard, there was attempt to hike it to $50 million) for the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, has yielded zilch.

There are those who point to the Indus Water Treaty between the two nations, which has been honoured even during times of war, and express supreme confidence that international guarantees (from who? Pakistan? Oil majors? Washington?) and threats of fines and penalties are good enough to ensure that Islamabad will not use the pipeline for political checkers.

Here's my counter offer:

Apart from reverse transit rights all along the pipeline's route, upto and through Iran into Central Asia, (how about a highway parallel to it, free to all?) let us sign a deal where any threat of disruption allows India to renege on the Indus Water Treaty.

You cut off the gas, we cut off the water.

And then let's step on the gas.


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Ramananda Sengupta