Iran’s decision to drop India from a plan to build a rail link from the strategic Chabahar port to Zahedan on the Afghan border is a wake-up call for Delhi. The development of the port, and the link overland through Iran to the Afghan border, was supposed to be India’s answer to Pakistan’s denial of the trading route through Wagah to Khyber pass into Afghanistan and beyond, to Central Asia.
Delhi rightly made the decision to bypass Pakistan altogether but appears to have lost the staying power to see the plan through. India played its part in developing the port, which is functional now. From Kandla in Gujarat, wheat and other foodgrain is being sent to Afghanistan via Chabahar. Also, it was India’s Border Roads Organisation that helped build the 218 km Route 606 in Afghanistan, known otherwise as the Delaram-Zaranj highway, that cut road travel time between Afghanistan and Iran.
But India dragged its feet on building the rail link from Chabahar to Zahedan. First, the delays were over contract disagreements, then the fear of US sanctions, and later, after the US provided a “carve-out” to India on the port and the rail link, the difficulty under the sanctions regime in finding international suppliers for material.
Chabahar will not be the first time delays in the completion of ambitious infrastructure projects undertaken by India in the region have inflicted setbacks on India’s strategic goals. From Nepal to Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Iran, Delhi has made commitments on building power projects, highways, railways, and other infrastructure. Each proceeds slowly or not at all.
The Pancheshwar Dam project in Nepal, for instance, has been hanging fire since 1991. Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to speed it up when he visited Kathmandu in August 2014, but little progress was made. Instead, India is firefighting to salvage a longstanding relationship with Nepal over claims of territory. A still to be completed trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand has been overshadowed by a Chinese-built highway that has boosted China-Myanmar border trade. India’s better record in Sri Lanka is not without missed opportunities that were once again snapped up by China. Delhi has no choice but to find a more efficient way of getting around these difficulties.
Delhi has indicated that it continues to be part of the the rail link project in Iran. If so, now is the time to get on with it, even if Iran’s much touted 25-year strategic partnership agreement with Beijing is not as imminent as Tehran makes it seem. The Chabahar project is important for India’s regional goals, and for its relations with Iran. That is reason enough to act quickly.
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