THE Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (Tapi) is like Pinocchio’s nose. The more participating governments lie about it, the longer its implementation schedule grows.
Tapi has been under consideration for over 20 years. No pipeline in the history of hydrocarbon transmission has taken so long to reach a terminal of indecision.
As pipeline projects go, Tapi is not the longest. Its 1,650-kilometre length is eclipsed by the Rockies Express (1,680km) which runs from Colorado to eastern Ohio. It is dwarfed by the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline system (4,100km) crossing from Russia, over Belarus and Poland into Germany. And it shrinks into insignificance compared to the Chinese West-East Gas Pipeline Project (WEPP) whose first two phases — WEPP-I (4,000km) and WEPP-II (8,700km) — are already functioning. Two more phases are being planned — WEPP III, (7,300 km) and WEPP IV.
In Tapi’s case, the obstacles are all man-made.
All these gas pipelines travel unimpeded over natural obstacles such as mountains, rivers and deserts, and across international boundaries. On paper, the Tapi project seems simple enough. It envisages transporting 28 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Daulatabad in Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan, across Pakistan, to Fazilka in Indian Punjab. It too has to overcome formidable obstacles, except that in Tapi’s case, they are all man-made. Friction between its sponsor nations has ensured that if the project ever does leave the drawing board, it will go from somewhere to nowhere.
It is already 13 years since Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed a deal to establish Tapi, 10 years since the Asian Development Bank (ADB) prepared its feasibility report on Tapi, five years since the Intergovernmental Agreement on Implementing the Gas Pipeline was signed by the participating states, four years since the Gas Sales & Purchase Agreements were signed in New Delhi, and two years since each country identified its executing agency. During all this time, while the sponsoring nations dithered, Tapi’s cost (according to the ADB) has escalated from its original $7.6bn to $10bn, recoverable from consumers.
It is to be expected that international busybodies would have an interest in such a project. The ADB, appointed as transaction advisor in 2013, sees through cataracts that Tapi will become “a tangible sign of transformational cooperation among the parties that presages the enhanced energy security, business prospects, and overall peace and stability in the region promised by the pipeline”.
Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan fret about their security as Tapi will pass through areas where they are deployed. The Israelis welcome India’s participation as its presence will ensure that “Central Asia will not become subject to some form of Sino-Russian hegemony”. Nato would like to train the security personnel needed to patrol the length of the pipeline. Lawyers will haggle over issues like the Energy Charter, security of Tapi’s assets, transit rights, environmental hazards, supply/offtake enforceability, and the bane of Indo-Pak relations — dispute resolution.
International contractors salivate at the prospect of $10bn worth of business. After US giants Chevron and ExxonMobil pulled out, the French company TOTAL threw its beret into the ring. Current expectations are that TOTAL jointly with the Turkmenistan government will be responsible for upstream operations while the Russian company ROSTEC and China National Petroleum Company will be part of a consortium led by TOTAL to construct the pipeline. (Member countries have yet to approve this configuration.)
The only countries that have a real stake in Tapi are Turkmenistan which owns the gas, and its customers — Afghanistan (3bn cubic metres) Pakistan and India who propose to take 12.5bn cubic metres each. And yet these are the very countries that are acting like marionettes, responding to strings being jerked by practised puppeteers.
Is it a coincidence that immediately after India and Pakistan were invited to join SCO, Mr Modi should have visited Turkmenistan and given his swift benediction to Tapi?
Could Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping be reprising the avuncular roles Kosygin played in Tashkent in 1965 and Zhou Enlai in 1971?
If there is a pressure anywhere, it is not in Turkmenistan’s Daulatabad gas field. It is from the millions of underfed gas consumers in India and in Pakistan. They need a dependable supply of hydrocarbons, freeing India from its reliance on coal and Pakistan on Sui gas and imported substitutes. And yet it is these constituencies that are not being taken into confidence by either government.
We have been arguing over Jammu & Kashmir for almost 70 years. We have been squabbling over the Indus Waters Treaty for 50 years. We have been sniping over Siachen. We have been hurling legal barbs at each other over Mumbai. It is time to be honest. Tapi is not a Pinocchio puppet for bored governments to play with, and then put away.
The writer is an author.
Pinocchio’s Nose | F.S. Aijazuddin
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2015