India’s dream of connecting to Afghanistan via Iran could soon move a step closer to reality if New Delhi, Tehran and Kabul sign off on a draft memorandum of understanding on transit trade that has been finalised recently. Since Pakistan denies India overland access to Afghanistan, Delhi has long sought an alternative through Iran. The idea first came up when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami came to Delhi in January 2003 to participate in the Republic Day celebrations. India then agreed to participate in the development of Chabahar on Iran’s Makran coast as the future entrepôt for trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
To develop Chabahar’s hinterland, Iran laid out a road link to its frontier with western Afghanistan. India, in turn, built Route 606 from the Iran-Afghan border to the circular highway that connects all the major cities in the country. The Chabahar project is a winner for the three countries. It would reduce landlocked Afghanistan’s total dependence on Pakistan to access the Arabian Sea. The port will help India skirt Pakistan into Afghanistan and establish Iran’s position as a gateway to Central Asia.
A variety of political and economic factors delayed the implementation of this vital project through the last decade. In a renewed political commitment to the project, senior officials of India, Iran and Afghanistan met in Tehran on the margins of the non-aligned summit in August 2012 and agreed to accelerate the development of Chabahar. The three sides have just wrapped up talks on the terms of transit trade through Iran. India must now fast-track its investments in Chabahar and develop dedicated shipping links between Iran and India. This should be one of the top foreign policy priorities for the next government in Delhi that takes charge at the end of May.
The BJP, which hopes to run the next government, has already talked about building modern ports all along the Indian coastline under what it calls “Project Sagar Mala”. If the BJP is serious about expanding India’s sea connectivity, it must promote India’s active participation in the development of maritime infrastructure beyond borders. In other words, Delhi must imagine an “Indian Ocean Sagar Mala”.
Over the last decade and more, the Indian government and corporate sector have struggled to grasp opportunities for building sea ports in other countries. The difficulties in developing the Chabahar port is symptomatic of the broader challenges that India faces in implementing large-scale infrastructure projects in the neighbourhood and beyond.
After much effort that began more than a decade ago, India is yet to complete the Kaladan transport corridor to Mizoram via Myanmar. This involved building a port at the ancient town of Sittwe