On December 13, construction on the $10 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project finally began with the pressing of the button by Indian vice president, Hamid Ansari, along with the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimohamedov, president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani and prime Mminister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. The project is expected to be operationalised by the end of 2019.
The ambitious project, considered crucial for energy-hungry India, was pitched by the US as an alternative to the equally ambitious Iran-Pakistan-India gas project, but has been lying in the cold for years owing to the fear of security of the project in one of the most volatile regions of Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak).
India has been apprehensive of Taliban attacks on the proposed project as in Afghanistan it would pass through the provinces of Herat and Kandahar, besides going through Multan via Quetta, before reaching Fazilka in Punjab. Turkmen president, Berdimohamedov, meanwhile, has expressed confidence that the pipeline will be secured. Pakistan, for its part, has also maintained that it will do everything possible for the safety of this crucial project.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan will also share gas and will not merely remain transit points; which is a positive for the project as the stakes of both these countries will be high. Once ready, the TAPI pipeline can carry up to 90 million metric standard cubic metres per day (mmscmd) of gas from the former Soviet republic; both India and Pakistan would share 38 mmscmd, while Afghanistan would get the rest for the next 30 years, according to the initial deal. There are talks of Kazakhstan too using the same pipeline to transport gas to India.
Turkmen company Turkmengaz has been declared the leader of the consortium. Meanwhile, India's largest state-owned natural gas processing and distribution company Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) has signed an agreement with Turkmengaz and will have equity in the project.
Talking to the Indian daily The Hindu, before the inauguration, Ansari noted in a very optimistic tone that the TAPI project is "one of those great ideas in regional cooperation that we have only dreamt of, that hasn't materialised until now". The demand for energy is so high for India's growing market that it is in the country's interest to not only have the TAPI project but also the IPI project materialising.
Owing to border disputes and historical conflicts between India and Pakistan, and Pakistan-Afghanistan, the region is also economically the least integrated, although it has a huge potential. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the five Central Asian countries recently, which was seen as India's attempt at asserting itself in the region, and "connect" with Central Asia as an alternative to China's Silk Road initiative that has now morphed into the "One Road, One Belt" policy. India's renewed interest in the project can be seen in the same light.
The success of the project and larger cooperation among the neighbouring countries can in fact prove to be a boon for conflict-infested Afghanistan which laments being used as proxy by some of the neighbours. In past, Indian workers involved in several infrastructure projects have particularly been targeted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many civil society members celebrated the inauguration of the TAPI project in Kabul with the same hope.
In many ways, the onus of successful execution of TAPI will be on Pakistan, which enjoys considerable influence on the Taliban. If it can control the rogue elements and non-state actors in AfPak, the pipeline will offer a win-win situation for every stakeholder in the region. It may, in fact, signal a new phase in regional cooperation and help bring the countries, otherwise at loggerheads, closer.