Exploring ‘Southern Silk Route’

K.N. Pandita

The much publicized IPI gas pipeline project is seen by the US as a strategy of nibbling at its uncontested oil and gas monopoly of the Gulf region. Moreover the US and her western allies are in no mood to give Iran a free hand in regional strategy.

For more than two centuries, western commentators have been hinting at Moscow’s lurking desire of finding a corridor to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Some go to the length of attributing 1979 Soviet incursion into Afghanistan essentially to that lurking desire.

Russia’s access to the warm waters in the contemporary situation when Afghanistan is bogged down with fundamentalist Taliban insurgency, Pakistan with deepening domestic crisis and Iran quite defiant on nuclear issue, seems next to impossible.

But alternatives have to be found and worked out. The contours of the “New Great Game” are indicating a re-thinking on the part of Russia, Iran and India to explore the possibility of a Southern Silk Route.

The idea assumes great significance in view of vast hydrocarbon deposits in Central Asia and the willingness of the owner states to cooperate in any venture where Russia has stakes.

In June 2002, an understanding was reached among the industrialists and entrepreneurs of three countries namely India, Iran and Russia, to look for North-South Trade Corridor bypassing Pakistan but reaching Central Asia. Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) hoped the North-South connectivity would not stop either in Central Asia or the Russian Federation but would ultimately extend via East Europe to the European mainland.

The route charted out starts from Indian’s industrial and commercial hub Mumbai to the Iranian seaport Bandar Abbas, then by rail/road link via Teheran to the Caspian Seaport Bandar Anzali and across the Caspian to the Russian port of Astrakhan and then by rail/road transportation to St. Petersburg from where the routes to East and West European countries are available.

Obviously, this route would not only bypass Pakistan-Afghanistan link to Central Asia but would also make the Suez Canal — Mediterranean option irrelevant. Russia will be very much in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean finding redemption of her old ambition, Iran receives centrifugal importance in North-South trade and commerce network and India (and later on South Asian region) not only finds great commercial opportunity but will also find access to the Central Asian energy resources reducing her crucial and almost fragile dependence on Gulf oil. It will have tremendous impact on India’s domestic and foreign policy as well because she will get untied from the Islami world – oil juggernaut.

In commercial terms, the plan is viable and attractive. The length of the existing Suez-Mediterranean link from the starting point (Mumbai) to the end point (Europe) is 16129 kilometers whereas the contemplated North-South Corridor will be only 6245 kms. The corridor will reduce transportation time by 15 – 20 days and will also cut the transportation cost by 15 to 20 per cent.

As regards its viability, in trial operation of one year (2001) the corridor had logged off shipment of 1800 containers, which touched 8,000 containers the following year. According to a conservative estimate it will handle 15 – 20 million tons of freight annually, which also means annual turn over of 10 billion US dollars. Evidently the corridor will bring the two continents of Europe and Asia closer to one another, and that is also an aspect of globalization programme.

Nevertheless, there are some obstacles in the way. None of the three major enterprising partners has adequate financial strength. How will the lending agencies behave is uncertain. Secondly the security issue cannot be ignored. Political instability in the Caucasus region, particularly the conflict – ridden Chechnya and Daghistan, pose a serious threat to the project. Furthermore the US and the western countries are going through a period of estrangement with Iran on account of her nuclear riddle.

But notwithstanding these obstructions, which possibly could be overcome by a broad-based comprehensive dialogue among the concerned peoples and their governments, the project is one that may no more be deferred in view of the deepening internal and external crisis in the Gulf countries and its overall impacat on global strategies and economy.

(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University)

Comments are closed.