Talk about gas pipeline connecting Iran’s gas fields to India’s booming economy has gathered pace in recent weeks. The overland route of the pipeline would traverse Pakistan – including the restive Balochistan province – and allow the Pakistan government to charge as much as $700m in transit fees.
Apart from its obvious economic benefits, proponents of the pipeline argue that lucrative transit fees and ‘international responsibilities’ will prevent Pakistan from using the pipeline as a bargaining chip to further its foreign policy and security goals vis-a-vis India. There have been repeated assurances from Pakistan that an ‘international guarantee‘ will provide India the necessary assurance.
Donating capability to Pakistan’s still hostile intent
Believing this fairy-tale view of Pakistani behaviour would be extremely naive. Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal and missiles – so very intelligently named Ghauri and Ghaznavi – that are neurotically India specific. War by proxy in Kashmir continues. The only bilateral agreement – the Indus River Water Treaty – has continued with relatively less controversy only because India being the upper riparian state does not have a shy at Pakistan’s water supply even during periods of Pakistani aggression as in Kargil. There is still a constituency in Pakistan that is a proponent of “gas for bullets” – using gas revenues for funding the proxy war in Kashmir. Handing over India’s economic jugular to Pakistan, under a dictatorship that is yet internally and externally unreconciled is sheer folly.
Even if the Pakistani platitudes are to be believed, the risks to the pipeline arising from Pakistan’s own internal rifts are not insignificant. Pakistan’s own gas pipelines from Sui in Balochistan to the rest of the country are only secured via a tightrope carrot and stick policy that frequently breaks down under the weight of its own contradictions. The pipelines are used variously to settle inter-tribal disputes, tribal-federal disputes and extortion so often that al Qaeda-related terrorists have no urgent need to target these installations. Musharraf’s continued reign at the top and his extreme unpopularity in the tribal areas do not contribute to improving the security situation along the proposed pipeline’s path. It is difficult to take Pakistan’s guarantees to protect an international pipeline seriously when it is clearly unable to guarantee its own domestic pipelines.
If the cost of these risks is added on to the cost of constructing and maintaining the pipeline, then the case becomes far less attractive. The alternative, an undersea pipeline that avoids Pakistan’s continental shelf deserves greater study. If such a pipeline is combined with India-Iran and India-US naval cooperation in the Arabian Sea, India’s geopolitical & economic interests would be much better served. Improving economic relations with Pakistan are desirable in their own right, but putting India’s economic cojones in Pakistan’s hands is not an idea whose time has come.
Apart from the undersea pipeline, there are other solutions to meet India’s energy requirements. As Niraj points out, India can procure natural gas from Bangladesh and Myanmar – running a pipeline through these countries into India will have the added benefit of bringing economic development to a historically underdeveloped part of the region. It may be better to use a gas pipeline to improve trade with neighbours who are on India’s right side (pun intended).