Sandeep Dikshit

NEW DELHI: India and Turkmenistan on Tuesday discussed energy cooperation and signed several agreements signalling the desire of both countries to strengthen bilateral ties.

In a sign of continuing interest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, New Delhi has offered to host a technical meeting of experts under the aegis of the Asian Development Bank.

In meetings with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, here on his maiden visit, senior Indian leaders touched upon the progress of the pipeline being constructed by Ashgabat from its gas rich eastern region to export terminals in the west.

India has shown interest in the possibility of Turkmenistan exporting some of the gas to northern Iran. It could then be swapped with gas from Iran's southern seaboard into an under-sea pipeline, obviating the need for a surface Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.

The SAGE (South Asia Gas Enterprise Pvt. Ltd.) project envisages a Middle-East natural gas gathering system connecting gas sources to the coast of the Arabian peninsula. From there, the SAGE family of pipelines plans to follow a route surveyed 15 years back and declared unviable as techniques of deepwater pipe-laying and manufacturing had not matured.

“Technology has made this feasible now,” said an official. The SAGE has finalised a MoU with National Iranian Gas Export Company for developing gas exports through this route, bypassing the territory of Pakistan. The Gas Authority of India Limited has also entered into a “principles of cooperation arrangement” for this sea route. However, the pipeline would pass on Pakistan's continental shelf.

During a full day of official engagements, Mr. Berdimuhamedov met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vice President Hamid Ansari, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. The President Pratibha Patil hosted a banquet and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Leader of the Opposition (Lok Sabha) Sushma Swaraj called on him.

India feels it is essential to engage separately with Turkmenistan as it is the only Central Asian country which is not part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). New Delhi enjoys observer status at the SCO and is inclined to become a full member provided the six-nation grouping amends its membership rules at its forthcoming summit next month in Tashkent.