Many a slip…

Pakistan signed an agreement with Afghanistan, India and Turkmenistan on Saturday to finally put the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline on the map. The 1,680 kilometre long gas pipeline is projected to cost over $ 7.6 billion, would bring 3.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day (bcfd) from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, and end in India. The demand for energy generally, and natural gas in particular is growing in Pakistan. For the past few years now we have had to face gas load shedding every winter due to increased demand. Our gas reserves are fast depleting. Thus there is an urgent need to import gas to meet our demand-supply gap. The TAPI gas pipeline project, which has already been years in gestation, is a welcome step but it would be premature to assume that things will go strictly according to plan.

If wishes were horses and we lived in an ideal world, the TAPI gas pipeline would be a dream come true for us but realistically, we must take stock of the ground realities. For starters, the proposed gas pipeline would have to pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The security situation in both countries is going from bad to worse. When construction of the gas pipeline begins in earnest, it would be hard to guarantee that the Taliban in Afghanistan would not jeopardise the project. Even if the Afghanistan segment is completed without mishap, the Afghan security challenge seems set to continue indefinitely, and the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan would pose additional problems. Apart from this, the fate of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project casts a shadow over the actual materialisation of the TAPI pipeline. International sanctions on Iran, pricing issues and India’s reluctance in relying on transit through Pakistan are the main reasons why the IPI is still in the doldrums. The IPI also had to face security concerns since it had to pass through Balochistan, where the Baloch insurgents pose a challenge to the state. TAPI will also pass through or near northern Balochistan, where apart from the Baloch insurgents, the Pakistani Taliban could also prove a thorn in the side. President Zardari said, “We shall work together to bring this project [TAPI] to early fruition…This resource-rich region can complement the economies of our countries.” Admittedly, Turkmenistan’s Daulatabad gas field is one of the largest untapped gas reserves in the world. It is therefore a tempting prize for all the TAPI partners. However, it remains to be seen whether Afghan President Karzai’s assurances of security and India’s suspicions about Pakistan in the IPI case can find positive resolution now. Granted that India is a growing but energy-deficient economy (this deficiency being shared by Pakistan), but the fraught and shaky relationship between India and Pakistan still poses a threat to projects such as TAPI. Apart from the 63-year old rivalry since partition of the subcontinent, Indo-Pak relations have not been ‘cordial’ since the Mumbai attacks in 2008. If a terrorist attack takes place in India now that originates from Pakistan, this billion dollar project will also bear its consequences. Another consideration for Pakistan is the money it has to raise for the proposed gas pipeline. Our economy is in tatters; we do not even have enough money to rehabilitate the flood victims. Under these circumstances, it would be a mammoth task for Pakistan to fund TAPI.

TAPI is a good project but unless and until all these questions are addressed, it seems more like a pipedream than a pipeline.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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