The first shipment of wheat from India went through to Afghanistan using Iran’s Chabahar port last month. By early next year, India would have shipped 1 million tons of the much-needed grain and build on its reservoir of goodwill there, which Islamabad has done hard to destroy in the last 15 years. The Chabahar development demonstrates at one stroke that obstructionist Pakistan’s veto stands removed in determining the tempo of our trade with Kabul.
Although this involves using land and sea to trade with land-locked Afghanistan — compared to the much shorter land corridor through Pakistan — the spin-offs of Chabahar, if we can optimise these, confer advantages that cannot accrue using just the Pakistan route.
If projections hold, Chabahar should be fully operational by end-2018. That would mean the passage of cargo of a wider range, including engineering goods and electronics, in the not-too-distant future.
The Chabahar avenue also allows the firming up of India’s trade relations beyond Afghanistan to countries of Central Asia and on to St Petersburg in Russia, past the Caspian, by linking with what’s called the North-South Transit Corridor, and the rail networks of Iran and more than a dozen other countries.
The travel time for goods all the way to northern Europe from India via Chabahar is expected to be reduced by about half from the current 45 days. The shortened time can permit the movement of certain categories of perishables to and from countries nearer on the route — Iran and Afghanistan.
The business profile can, thus, be altered for the benefit of all concerned. More than 2,000 trucks from Pakistan are said to pass the Khyber on a daily basis, carrying everyday supplies to Afghanistan. Some of this trade, which is a factor for considerable Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, can be picked up by India when Chabahar opens up fully. For the situation to be sustainable, and allow the Chabahar channel to fulfil its promise as a geopolitical dividend for India, New Delhi will be required to put its head down and work for the long term — longer than the ten years visualised in the contract signed with Tehran in May 2016, during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to equip and run two multi-purpose cargo terminals.
Orders worth $30m have been placed by India for rail-mounted quay cranes. In all, Indian-made equipment for the terminals at Chabahar is likely to cost $85 m. In addition, GoI-owned Ircon will have to brace itself to build the 640 km railway link from Chabahar to Zahedan, from where Indian goods can connect to the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway to convey goods to Afghanistan.
When its security situation settles down, the Afghans may find that the sea-rail-road link constructed by India will be a positive factor its mineral extraction and trade.
Notwithstanding all the infrastructure works, the geopolitical meaning of Chabahar is ineluctably tied to the adequate appreciation of politics — bilateral, regional and international, and their deft and flexible management.
The Chinese and the Iranians have long played the game. The Russians have been at the centre of things since their superpower days and have strong stakes in Iran and Afghanistan. We, too, have to show we are ready to learn flexibility.
The US is the elephant in the room, but US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting New Delhi recently, gave India relief with his statement that ‘genuine’ business interests of countries with Iran will not be prejudiced on account of the US.
The logic of a multi-polar world is that everyone does business with everyone else.