Groundbreaking for TAPI project tomorrow

Vice-President Hamid Ansari is welcomed by children at Ashgabat airport in Turkmenistan on Friday.— PHOTO:PTI  

The TAPI pipeline will “significantly change the way India and Central Asia are related,” Indian officials said, as Vice-President Hamid Ansari, accompanied by Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, landed here to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the $10-billion natural gas project.

Mr. Ansari will join Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani along with his host Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov on Sunday to press a button that will forge the first pipeline to supply Turkmen gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, (TAPI) with a final length of nearly 1,800 km by the time of its completion in 6-7 years. Mr. Ansari will also address a conference on international neutrality on Saturday, which will be attended by leaders of several countries including the Chinese Vice-President and the Iranian and Turkish Presidents.

Describing the potential of the pipeline project, which India joined in 2008, hoping to extract from it between 15-25% of its natural gas needs, Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs Navtej Sarna said that it “is going to be a force multiplier for our development efforts, and will very significantly change the way India and Central Asia are related.”

As he left Islamabad for the visit, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Friday that Pakistan attaches great importance to TAPI, which would help “mitigate the energy deficit in Pakistan.”

Afghanistan, which will receive about 16% of the gas (India and Pakistan will have a share of 42% each) from the pipeline, would also receive an estimated $200-$250 million as transit fees from Pakistan, officials familiar with the negotiation said.

Similarly, India would pay Pakistan transit fees for the pipeline that will originate in Turkmenistan’s south east areas, travel through Herat, Farah and Helmand provinces of Afghanistan, entering Pakistan in Balochistan and then cutting across Pakistan Punjab to reach the border area of Fazilka-Abohar in Indian Punjab.

Security situation

Despite the hopes and expectations, the project faces rising risks and added costs from the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. While the Afghan government has promised to secure the pipeline with an added strength of 5,000-7,000 Army personnel, recent reverses for the ANSF in Kunduz and the Taliban attack at Kandahar airport that left more than 50 dead this week present a bleak picture.

The cost of laying infrastructure to protect the pipeline from possible attacks will affect the TAPI’s viability. Pakistan’s insurgency in Balochistan will further add to the project, whose final cost estimation is still to be done. While TAPI was originally promoted by U.S. companies like Unocal and Chevron in the 1990s, they eventually pulled out because of the risks and tough restrictions on investment. Turkmengaz is now the consortium leader of the project, with reports that UAE company Dragon Oil may take over some part of it.

Bypassing Russia

None of the challenges facing TAPI is new. If the project has seen progress, it is because of the backing from the United States, which is keen that the pipeline open the way for other western countries wanting to access Central Asian energy bypassing Russia.

The U.S. has also pushed the TAPI as an alternative to the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) project so as to bring pressure on Iran to deliver on nuclear safeguards.

“Washington has been a strong advocate for TAPI. The project is a key foundation for the New Silk Road initiative announced by Hillary Clinton in India in July 2011,” wrote former U.S. envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan Marc Grossman in an article last year, explaining that TAPI would contribute to peace, as well as to realising American objectives in the region.