Monday, May 12, 2008


There is manifestly more to the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India(IPI) Gas Pipeline than meets the eye. In my previous post, I had reiterated my argument that the pipeline would be a security disaster for India, as should have been clear to informed Indians who, despite the clear risk, have been more than active protagonists of the project.

The Times of India of May 12, 2008 carries a very illuminating report about an undersea pipeline being considered to bring gas to India from the Gulf. This pipeline will start from a point in Oman and will terminate in Western India. The project, to be executed by an international consortium, will bring gas not just from Oman but other countries in the gas abundant Gulf region to the closest and biggest market for the commodity. It will thus become a relatively secure “gas bridge” to India. The security will be not only because it will be over 3000 meters under the sea at its maximum depth, but also because it will not be dependent on any single source of supply. Gas through this pipeline will be sourced from Oman, Qatar and Iran. In future, even Iraq and Turkmenistan could become important sources.

This diversification of the sources of supply and avoidance of the use of the territory of any major regional player who can choke the flow of gas at a future point of time, makes this proposal the win-win deal that India should have been looking for right from the very beginning. Even Pakistan can get gas through a branch of this pipeline as it passes across the Arabian sea in front of Pakistani territory. In one stroke, the debilitating strategic leverage that India was going to hand over to Pakistan had the pipeline passed through its territory gets taken away from Pakistan, fully addressing Indian vulnerability while simultaneously making the former a partner in the project.

The undersea project had been spoken about and dismissed earlier too on the only ground that it was going to be costlier than the proposed overland pipeline. Ironically, India has not yet fully grasped the basic fact that national security is not a free lunch. Securing the nation’s security carries a significant cost that has to be borne if the alternative renders the nation vulnerable in any manner. Yet, despite the prevailing situation in Pakistan and the host of unresolved issues which have already led to a number of wars and an ongoing low intensity conflict that Pakistan has used to keep India tied down for over two decades to coercively settle matters in its favour, the IPI project is still being promoted

Even the price disadvantage used as an excuse to rule out an undersea pipeline has now been addressed so emphatically that there can be no further justification for promoting the IPI. The IPI will cost $7 billion. The undersea pipeline, as per the latest proposal, will be a reality by 2012 for just $4 billion. This has been known to the government for a couple of months now. Yet, the Foreign Secretary speaks of the IPI as a good “doable” project “which has the potential to become a major confidence building measure among the three countries”! He should know better that such confidence building, without critically asymmetrical dependence, can be achieved not by the IPI but by the undersea pipeline.

The most active promoter of the IPI has been and is the former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar. Had he stayed on in the ministry for a few more months, the IPI deal would have been signed. Perhaps he was sacked because of his abnormal interest, particularly as the project was a palpable security disaster that he was actively inviting. May be the US had something to do with his ouster. Whatever be the reason, the country was saved from a major strategic blunder.Had Aiyar been one of those ministers who are inducted into the cabinet only out political compulsions, his aggressive pushing of the IPI could have been attributed to the almost pervasive security blindness that afflicts India’s politicians.

But, Aiyar is a former career diplomat who is expected to have a reasonable, even if limited, understanding of the subject. Now that it has emerged that a technologically challenging and far more complex undersea pipeline can be built more than 40 percent cheaper than the overland IPI, one cannot help thinking that Aiyar may have had a hidden personal agenda to push the IPI. One more example of a major security disaster for this country sought to be brought on mindlessly by one of its own?

The present proposal to build an undersea pipeline from the Gulf may or may not get the government’s nod. That is not important. What is significant is that it has demonstrated that there is a better and much more secure method of getting gas from the Gulf to meet India’s burgeoning energy requirements. This in itself should be enough to shut all further talk of building the IPI and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipelines. The focus should now be on maximising the potential that an undersea gas pipeline promises, and making it a reality at the earliest.

It will be very interesting to see the enthusiasm, or lack of it, with which Pakistan and Iran react to the undersea pipeline which will be the real peace pipeline that they have cleverly been trying to project the one sided IPI as.
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