NEW DELHI: Ditching its long-held worry of feeding into Islamabad’s insecurities by helping Kabul, India will start work on a 500-km-long rail track in the Hajigak region of Afghanistan, giving the country access to the Iranian port of Chabahar, just 72 km west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port that is being built with Chinese help.
Rail tracks from Khaaf in Iran reached zero point at the Afghan border and now the track-laying on Afghan side will begin. “Iran has finished its half. Now the first phase inside Afghan territory to lay 62 km in Ghoriyan district has been launched and will take around four months to complete,” sources said. Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Manpreet Vohra attended the ceremony at the Iran-Afghan border on September 7.
The rail link passing through the mineral rich region of Afghanistan will open a new trade route for India to Central Asia and will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for trade. The track to Chabahar port will allow exploration of the vast mineral reserves in the region bypassing Pakistan, which has refused New Delhi land access to Kabul. Hajigak, 130 km west of Kabul in Bamiyan province, has iron reserves worth $3 trillion. Twenty-two companies have been shortlisted to mine these, of which 14 are Indian, including a consortium led by Steel Authority of India Limited.
While India has shied away from providing boots on the ground, it has seized the opportunity to provide strategic assistance to Kabul with helicopters and rail tracks to provide sea access to the landlocked country. The network, seen as an answer to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, will be the launchpad for India for greater economic and strategic engagement with oil-rich Central Asia. There are prospects of tie-ups with Iran and Russia to create a network to Central Asia and finally to Europe through the International North-South Transport Corridor.
Pakistan recently rubbed in the influence it wields in Afghanistan’s trade when it closed the Friendship Gate at Chaman Post for over two weeks, crippling Kabul’s exports. Afghan imports through Karachi port declined by more than 40 per cent in February, and Afghan-Indian trade volume could increase four-fold if a trilateral agreement materialises.
Ministry of External Affairs officials have indicated that the three countries have during the 2nd India-Afghanistan-Iran trilateral in Tehran decided to hold meetings between experts on aspects of the project. Recommendations will be discussed in the 3rd Trilateral meeting in Kabul.