truck chugged into the city of Astrakhan, close to where the great Volga River
empties into the Caspian Sea, on September 1, 2014, unnoticed by everyone but a
handful of freight-handling agents from India. There was no particular reason
anyone should have paid attention to the vehicle, carrying nothing but an empty
container tagged with a GPS unit.
who had followed its journey, though, it was a historic moment: for the first
time in a century, cargo from India had made its way across Asia by land, all
the way to the threshold of Europe.
India have fully grasped the radical ambition that underlies Prime Minister
Narendra Modi’s decision to sign on to the $ 500 million project to transform
the small Iranian port of Chabahar into a hub for Indian business.
signed in Tehran this week, will see India financing the construction of a $ 85
million port, building aluminium and urea plants, and underwriting the
construction of a railway line to link it to Iran’s network. It is, for India,
far more than a geostrategic gambit — it is, in fact, a revolt against history.
Modi spoke of creating a “vast network of physical and digital connectivity
that extends from Eurasia’s northern corner to Asia’s southern shore”. It isn’t
just imagination — but now that the ink has dried on the Chabahar agreement,
the hard work has to begin, and India’s record on that front isn’t quite as
good as on dreaming.
The idea of
the Chabahar hub is a small cog in what is known as the International
North-South Trade Corridor — a giant strategic project that rivals China’s better-known
One Belt, One Road project, which runs East to West. The Federation of Freight
Forwarders’ Associations in India, which carried out the 2014 dry run to
Astrakhan from Mumbai via Chabahar, estimated that the corridor would slash
freight costs to Russia by some 30%, and take just under half as long as the
current sea journey through St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland.
ongoing negotiations with the Eurasian Economic Union, made up of Belarus,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, could help India expand trade and investment
opportunities through the region. The Astrakhan study also got a truck from
Chabahar to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 23 days, showing it could
potentially rival the existing routes used by most Indian businesses to the
region, involving moving cargo on China’s rail system, via Singapore or Hong
trade routes would also ease business with Central Asia’s energy-rich
economies. India is the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, and access to
Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan’s gargantuan gas reserves would meet its future
needs. India already has small export openings in the region, selling
pharmaceuticals and information technology, but the land route will offer new
opportunities for the construction industry and heavy manufacturing.
1600s to the 1750s, Astrakhan — one of the few outposts open for foreign
traders dealing with imperial Russia — had an established Indian community,
made up of some 200 businessmen, labourers and hangers-on. The traders formed
part of a constellation of Sindhi and Marwari traders whose interests spanned
from Kandahar in Afghanistan to Tabriz and Isfahan in Iran and Bukhara in
Uzbekistan — backed by sophisticated credit networks that were, in turn,
underpinned by the backbone of caste and kinship.
historian Stephen F Dale’s superb work, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade,
1600-1750, shows many of these people had assimilated into their Russian
environment, often marrying local women — indeed, records show the existence of
a Ramdas Dzhasuev from Multan and a Talaram Alimchandov from Sindh.
Inside of a
century, however, these networks were to be levelled by two great developments
— the destruction of Indian manufacturing by the industrial revolution, and the
inability of the overland routes across Central Asia to compete with the
the Chabahar project — the port, the rail network, and the road systems it
would tap into — would give India dramatic access to economic opportunities in
regions it has been cut off from for centuries. For years now, Indian
governments have eyed the opportunities Chabahar offers — but have failed to
capitalise on the potential.
realised the need for a deep water port distant from the fraught Persian Gulf
during its war with Iraq, and hired Indian contractors to begin work on it in
2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed on to a deal with Iran to
develop the port. This time, the considerations were part strategic. Pakistan
obdurately resisted allowing Indian supplies to Afghanistan, to the point of
disallowing food aid to transit through Karachi. India responded by building a
road from Zaranj on the Afghanistan-Iran border to Delaram on the Khash river,
giving itself access to Kabul from the southwest — but it still needed a port
to send supplies. Chabahar fit the bill.
In 2004, an
Indian consortium that included the Hinduja-backed Ashok Leyland Project
Services, entered into an agreement with Tehran to develop Chabahar. However,
even as the Delaram-Zaranj road was built, the port deal stalled — and
ultimately sank, after sanctions were imposed on Iran amidst revelations on its
finally seems back in the game — but history shows the country’s record on
moving to realise plans drawn up on paper isn’t that great. The Kaladan
multimodal transport project, which was supposed to link the North-eastern
states to Myanmar’s Sittwe port, was supposed to have been operational by 2013
— but is in fact likely to take years more to be completed. Meanwhile, the cost
has ballooned from the Rs 535 Crore estimated when it was announced in 2008 to
Rs 2,904 Crore.
take sustained commitment from successive governments to turn the possibilities
that have opened up for India into realities. Iran, and the world, aren’t going
to be waiting for India to act on its dreams.