Russia-India gas pipeline faces several constraints

The Russian technology and experience in laying pipelines can be helpful for India. Source: AFP / East News

The Russian technology and experience in laying pipelines can be helpful for India. Source: AFP / East News

It will take a great degree of political will from both sides for the proposed pipeline project to become a reality.

A gas pipeline from Russia to India will help meet the latter’s energy requirements. With such an assertion, the supporters and detractors of such a pipeline will converge, but when it comes to the feasibility of such a pipeline there will be divergence. After a new government took charge in New Delhi in May, the debates have swayed in favour of a pipeline. And particularly after the meeting of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, the debate has certainly gained synergy. In a recent interview Russian Ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin expressed hope that the “biggest ever energy project in history (the pipeline) … would enhance India’s energy security.”

There are so far talks about two possibilities how the pipeline can be run from Russia to India. One is through the Himalayas, most likely through the Xinjiang province of China. And the other one is linking the pipeline to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, yet to be constructed. The pipeline from Russia to India will cost about $40 billion, making it the costliest pipeline so far.

Whether through the Himalayas or through TAPI, the pipeline from a security point of view carries a great deal of risks. Though China has a tight control over insurgency in its restive province, there is no guarantee that the disgruntled elements will not target the pipeline to sabotage the very flow of gas and to undermine China’s rule. Even if no sabotage takes place, the topsy-turvy relations between India and China will provide ample cause of tension to Indian policy makers. The fear that Beijing may use the pipeline to have concessions from New Delhi has gained ground.  Historic border tensions, including a war, and clash of geo-strategic interests in the neighbourhood increase the quotient of distrust, though the recent meeting of Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of  the BRICS summit last month sought to develop relations. The hard fact, however, is that China is unavoidable for the pipeline if India wants to avoid Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Linking the pipeline to TAPI is also prone to risk. In the Taliban-influenced Afghanistan and extremist-infested Pakistan it is impossible to guard pipeline every metre. In Pakistan there are India-specific terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba which will use every opportunity to sabotage prospects of India-Pakistan cooperation including cooperation on a pipeline.

A detailed assessment of the cost of the pipeline is yet to be made. Kadakin observed pragmatically, “We are planning to examine feasibility of the Indian initiative to construct a land pipeline which would run from Russia’s southern border to India either along the projected TAPI route or through the Himalayas.” The Himalayas present several barriers. There are glaciers, ravines, mountains, landslide-prone areas, which must be taken into account before putting the pipe on the ground. India’s record in ensuring effective implementation of projects particularly in mountainous areas is not that encouraging. A much smaller railway line project demonstrates this. The project in Kashmir, linking the rest of India to Srinagar through the Himalayas, has been subject to revisions and cancellations, costing the exchequer millions. The railway line example is not trivial because the rail line has to be constructed on the same Himalayas. The Russian technology and experience in laying pipelines can be helpful in this regard. Russia can also help India in exploring its hydrocarbon resources. Add to oil and gas other sources such as nuclear energy, Russia stands in a good position to meet India’s energy requirements. 

The question of political will must be factored. Are the leaders of both the countries serious and committed to build the pipeline? The pipeline talk is on the record since 2005. The last joint summit in Moscow affirmed a bilateral commitment to build the pipeline. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rozogin during his last visit to India also talked about the pipeline. India’s gas company ONGC has also expressed interest in the pipeline. The meeting of Modi and Putin in Brazil in July was positive in this regard. All are good signs. But they need to see action.

About political will, it can be safely argued that the thermometer is high. Unlike his predecessor, Modi is a strong political leader with the law making body behind him. Though the pipeline was in air during Manmohan Singh, it was Modi who seemed to be serious to reach a concrete agreement. Russia will be interested to diversify its energy import than putting all eggs in the European basket, particularly after the tense Ukrainian situation. The threat of sanctions may further embolden Russia to embrace traditional friends like India and China. Their increasing political bonhomie and joint stands on various international issues through common bodies like BRICS may help realize the bilateral pipeline dream, instead of making the pipeline idea a pipedream. The increasing bonhomie, as reflected in the establishment of the New Development Bank in Shanghai, will propel the trilateral cooperation in making the pipeline project more feasible.

India is the third largest importer of energy. It imports about 76 percent of its energy. By 2020 it will likely emerge as the largest energy consumer in the world. Russia has enough resources to support India’s needs. It is instability in West Asia that has also goaded India to diversify its energy imports.

The bilateral relations flourish well in the area of defence. Energy can be another area of mutually beneficial cooperation. The logic of defence cooperation can be applied to energy cooperation. Russia has met India’s defence requirements significantly and both have taken the cooperation to a new height by jointly designing and producing weapons. Like in defence, Russia has capability to meet India’s energy requirements. If things move in expected lines, the forthcoming bilateral summit in December will witness a concrete development towards the building of the pipeline.  

Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Indian commentator. His areas of interests include conflict, terrorism, peace and development, South Asia, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.

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