New Delhi: India is treading cautiously on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project now even as Turkmenistan and Afghanistan are pushing the stalled negotiations for setting up the decades-old project, ThePrint has learnt.
While New Delhi continues to remain a participant in the mega gas pipeline project conceived in the 1990s, its concerns over the safety and security around the project have grown manifold with the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, top-level sources told ThePrint.
The sources said that the $10 billion project failed to make any progress since it was conceived about three decades back mainly due to tensions between India and Pakistan, but the changed situation in Afghanistan has further marred chances of making progress.
During the recently-concluded first-ever India-Central Asia Summit, the President of Turkmenistan “stressed on the importance” of the project, according to the joint statement of the Summit.
The project aims to transport 33 billion cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh gas field to Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally India through the proposed 1814-km long pipeline, also called the ‘Peace Pipeline’.
It is expected to pass through the Kandahar and Herat provinces of Afghanistan from where it will pass through Quetta and Multan of Pakistan and then terminate in Fazilka, a district in Punjab that is located near the India-Pakistan border.
According to sources, it won’t be easy for India to return to talks even though the Modi government had taken some steps in recent years to push the project forward — before the Taliban came to power in Kabul.
One of India’s primary concerns is that once the project becomes operational, a lot of Indian industries will become dependent on it. Pakistan can take advantage of this and can shut off supplies during periods of tension, which will then result in huge losses, sources said.
Another reason that will make it difficult for India to move is the fact that New Delhi doesn’t officially recognise the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which is one of the stakeholders, sources said.
A special-purpose international consortium — TAPI Pipeline Co. Ltd (TPCL) — was incorporated in November 2014. It was decided that from India, state-owned GAIL will pick up 5 per cent stake in TPCL, along with Pakistan’s Interstate Gas Systems (ISGS) and Afghanistan’s Afghan Gas Enterprise (AGE), both of which will have 5 per cent stake each in the project while Turkmenistan’s Turkmengaz, will hold majority stake of 85 per cent.
In April 2016, India along with other shareholders of the project signed an investment agreement with the Asian Development Bank, under which an initial budget of $200 million was earmarked to fund one of the phases of the project.
Other factors such as price of gas and existence of such a large amount of gas in the fields of Turkmenistan and whether it can sustain the supplies also remains a question, sources added.
Taliban has made TAPI a priority
No sooner did the Taliban forcefully return to power in Afghanistan, a high-level delegation from Turkmenistan met the senior Taliban leaders in Kabul to discuss the future roadmap of the project in a special meeting that was held in October 2021.
During the visit, Turkmenistan Vice-Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs R. Meredov held a meeting with Taliban regime’s interim Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund, in which it was decided that TAPI project will be given “special attention”, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan.
Last month, a Taliban delegation led by their acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi flew to Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat to hold talks on TAPI.
While the Taliban has claimed that the TAPI project remains a priority and it will provide security, the group continues to face challenges in moving ahead as the Afghan economy faces a near collapse. So, Kabul has asked Turkmenistan to bear all the cost of laying the pipeline.
‘India will witness demand in gas’
Rajiv Bhatia, veteran diplomat and Distinguished Fellow at Gateway House India, believes Turkmenistan will continue to push for the project as it has to monetise its energy assets.
“Taliban is also badly short of money so they see it as a money-spinner. Pakistan’s economy is also in dire condition so they see it with interest. Hence, the TAPI project will act as one of the main drivers,” Bhatia said.
“India is now moving closer to Central, but we have no relations with Taliban and dialogue with Pakistan stands disrupted, thus, India would be interested in the project only when it is adequately assured of its political and security. India would continue to remain interested but it will remain very vigilant and alert,” he said.
“With a rising population our appetite for gas will continue to rise. But commercial, political and security considerations will be factored in very carefully,” he added.
According to a September 2021 report by the Atlantic Council, “India could benefit as well from a new gas source, but prospects are riskier”.
“India will only buy TAPI gas if the landed price beats the price India pays for liquefied natural gas. Bilateral hostility also may raise its head. Indian lawmakers have asked pointed questions about the transit fees which Pakistan would collect from supplying gas to India, while any Pakistani government might be tempted to squeeze gas supplies during a time of tension,” the report said.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)