In a bold move to assert itself in the Af-Pak region and reduce Pakistan's room for manoeuvre, India is finalising a plan to construct a 900-km railway line that will connect Chabahar port in Iran, being built with Indian help, to the mineral-rich Hajigak region of Afghanistan.
Chabahar is just 72 km west of Pakistan's Gwadar port, being built with Chinese help.
When completed, this line will throw up both tantalising geo-political and economic opportunities for India as well as potential for bad blood with both friends and foes.
- It will increase Indian leverage in Afghanistan and its strategic presence in the region. In the past, however, New Delhi has refuted Pakistani fears that India is encircling it.
- It will give Afghanistan access to the sea, thus, reducing its dependence on Pakistan.
- It will open opportunities for Indian companies to explore Afghanistan's mineral wealth, believed to be worth $1-3 trillion (Rs 50-150 lakh crore), for mutual benefit. Just consider: the entire Indian economy is valued at $1.2 trillion (Rs 60 lakh crore);
- It will add to the economic rationale for Indian investment in Chabahar;
- Once the entire network comprising of road, rail and port is in place, it can become a launching pad for greater economic and strategic involvement of India in the oil and mineral-rich Central Asia;
However, the greater cooperation with Iran in Chabahar (and, presumably, in other areas) will almost certainly upset the Americans, whose support is essential if India is to play a greater role in the region.
Based on a note prepared by the ministry of external affairs (MEA) on this subject, foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai held a meeting on August 10 with representatives of the ministries of railways and mining, sources told Hindustan Times.
Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Gautam Mukhopadhyay was also present at the meeting.
"In order to coordinate the strategy for investment in Hajigak in the backdrop of the security, infrastructure, financial and regional challenges involved, there is a need to plan and craft our strategy to address these challenge," says a note the MEA had sent to the Railways.
Hajigak, 130 km west of Kabul in Bamiyan province, holds Afghanistan's largest iron ore deposits. Of the 22 companies shortlisted for the bid for these mines 14 are Indian, including a consortium led by the public sector Steel Authority of India Limited.