The price of inaction

M Ramesh | Updated on July 24, 2014 Published on July 24, 2014

India is losing its neighbourhood. Here’s how

A recent meeting that Hassan Nourian, Iran’s Consul General South India, had recently with a few members of the Madras Chambers of Commerce and Industry began and flowed just as all meetings between Indians and Iranians do — starting with a lot of blah about the history of friendship between ancient India and Persia, carpets and Sufi poetry and all that, and finally veering down to a port on the southern edge of Iran.

Being a seasoned diplomat, Nourian managed to keep his cool and say politely that Iran hoped that India would act fast on the Chabahar port, which it had promised to build as far back as 2003. But then, he is a diplomat. To say that the Iranians are upset with India would be a gross understatement.

Losing many sides

India’s exasperatingly slow progress in building the port — 11 years on, work has not even begun — has been a major source of irritation for the Iranians. After all, they gave the project to India rejecting a Chinese offer. The Chinese have since finished building a port for the Pakistanis at Gwadhar, 70 km east of Chabahar.

The Iranians know the reason why India wanted the project — to thwart the Chinese, and why the India is dragging its feet — for fear of annoying the US. For Iran, the Chabahar port is of great economic importance. For India, it is of great economic and strategic significance. The port opens to a road that leads to Afghanistan, a lucrative market today, and beyond, to the mineral-rich countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

And now, China is interested in Chabahar. Ashok Behuria of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, who visited Chabahar recently, speaks of the very visible Chinese interest there. “We were shown a Chinese dredger operating at the Shahid Behesti terminal with Chinese workers.” In Tehran, the hotel in which Behuria was staying was teeming with Chinese businessmen “engaged in animated discussions with their local contacts about how best to invest in Iran.”

If India loses Chabahar to the Chinese, it’d be an encore. Sri Lanka offered the Humbantota port development project to India, twice. The tsunami-ravaged port was in President Rajapaksa’s constituency and he was keen on re-building it.

While India dithered, China jumped in. Humbantota has developed into a fine port. India ceded a key strategic space in its own backyard to China. Why? Because UPA partner DMK would not let India do any development work in Sri Lanka.

Now, Chabahar is going the Humbantota way.

Move to Myanmar. The port of Sittwe is of critical importance to India, for it would open up the North East. India did secure the project — it was given to the Essar Group. There have been delays, but the work is on. However, the project is only a part of what India had committed to doing, which was to build the entire multi-modal transport corridor — the Kaladan project. For parts of the project other than the port, even the tenders have not been floated.

Time to change

While India drags its feet in Myanmar, China is moving in fast. While India (in fact, NHPC) dumped the two hydro-electric projects it had (Htamanthi — 1200 MW and Shwesarye — 660 MW), terming them as “too expensive”, China is going ahead with as many as 33.

Place after place in India’s neighbourhood (with the possible of Afghanistan) is going into Chinese sphere of influence, due to, as one IDSA expert described, “bureaucratic lassitude”. It’s time for an attitudinal shift. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s recent statement to speed up work on the Chabahar port marks a break from the past. But it may be a case of too little, too late.

Published on July 24, 2014
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