A major step in the modernisation of the strategically important Chabahar Port has come to fruition Sunday with the upgradation and extension of the facility into the sea with five new piers. Significantly, this is the only port that gives Iran direct access to the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea and where India has invested heavily with the twin objective of boosting its trade to the wider region and achieving strategic regional objectives. Broadly at play are both strategic and commercial interests of Iran, Afghanistan and India while the economic benefits from this port in the Gulf of Oman will reach out to a big portion of the landlocked Central Asian region. Equally important, the coming into being of a high-capacity port in the region is seen by India as an answer to the Gwadar Port jointly built by Pakistan and China in Pakistan just 80km from Chabahar.
India has invested heavily in this project — which was first conceived by the Shah of Iran but was left in suspended animation for nearly half a century following his overthrow in the Iran Revolution and the US-initiated economic sanctions against the Islamic nation later. What is now termed as the Golden Gateway to the central Asian nations, the region is historically important. History has also recorded this region as the gateway for Alexander the Great in 2500BC, as also the Portuguese, to enter India — a nation that extended up to this swathe before Partition. India is trying to return to the region to have a foothold, exemplified also in the investments it has made in the largely underdeveloped eastern Iran’s new trade and industrial zones, besides the port project. India has also invested in developing rail and road connectivity from Chabahar to Afghanistan, having already built a link road extending up to over 300km into the landlocked country. India also has established hold over mines on a lease basis in what is seen as Asia’s largest iron ore mine region, deep inside the Afghan territory. The coming into full bloom of the Chabahar facility is thus of great help to India, besides the extensive benefits Iran and Afghanistan may derive from it in the future. It must be understood that Chabahar Port is a huge test for India’s diplomacy as well as economic efficiency. India, unfortunately, does not enjoy good relations with any of its neighbors. Compared with China, it has never proven its abilities to deliver efficiently any of its promises. While the Dragon is capable of executing projects of immense proportions, India is left far behind as a straggler.
It must also be noted that there is a great amount of falsehood being spread in India about the Gwadar Port of Pakistan. Media reports, ostensibly promoted by pro government sources claim China will take 91 per cent of the total revenue from Gwadar Port. Indian media also claims that Pakistan will have to repay a $15 billion for this project. They conveniently forget to mention the expected revenue from that infrastructure which has been majorly funded by China. Pakistan has greatly benefited by getting such a large infra investment for a fixed figure to be paid back annually from the revenue generated by the project itself.
Returning to Chabahar project, it was implemented in the final phase with remarkable speed and should provide lessons to India on how to speed up its own projects back home. Progress at snail’s pace destroys the very core of any infra project. This speed also had to do with the competition involving Gwadar, where China gave both financial and technological push to Pakistan for the project’s completion with hyper speed. With the coming into being of Chabahar as a full-fledged alternative port to the region, it remains to be seen which of these two will gain the upper hand in the near future. On the positive side, the entire region would stand to benefit immensely from these two port projects. A loser, to an extent, could be the ports in the Gulf, mainly the Dubai port, from where heavy goods were being transhipped to Iran in the absence of the latter not having a full-fledged port so far. Cargo meant for Afghanistan is also expected to pass through Chabahar instead of Karachi.
The success for India in the matter of Chabahar is a silver-lining to it for the future even as the economic momentum for the region is largely being appropriated by China through its visionary projects at different levels, such as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects. Faced with such activism, India is mostly seen to be blinking, and not measuring up to expectations.
Chabahar shows the way towards intensifying the Indian momentum in the economic push for the geopolitical region.