Originally Published 2003-09-29 12:04:44 Published on Sep 29, 2003
Indian diplomacy seems to be drawing a blank when it comes to regional cooperation involving fine diplomacy and seasoned statecraft. The recent events relating to India's attempts towards getting natural gas from Bangladesh and Myanmar and the negative response from Bangladesh suggest that it is unlikely to obtain any gesture of
India-Bangladesh Energy Non-Cooperation
Indian diplomacy seems to be drawing a blank when it comes to regional cooperation involving fine diplomacy and seasoned statecraft. The recent events relating to India's attempts towards getting natural gas from Bangladesh and Myanmar and the negative response from Bangladesh suggest that it is unlikely to obtain any gesture of cooperation from the energy-rich neighbors. On the one hand India is 'unable' to strike a deal with either Iran or Turkmenistan to transport natural gas to India because the pipeline has to pass through Pakistan, which India thinks is unsafe for the uninterrupted flow of gas to the country. On the other hand, India's efforts at getting gas from Bangladesh and Myanmar are facing severe problems and so is the case with getting hydroelectric power form Nepal.

Last month, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia reportedly decided to shelve plans to export gas to India. Prior to that the Bangladesh Foreign Minister M. Saifur Rehman had said that he was not sure whether his country would allow gas from Myanmar to be taken through Bangladeshi waters to India, which by implication meant that the ruling party may not take the bold step of allowing gas transit to India fearing backlash from the opposition and subsequently from the public. He also said that the issue of Bangladesh selling gas to India is a political issue at home. What does that mean? It only means that Bangladesh is in no mood to either let India transport Myanmar's natural gas to India through its territory or sell its natural gas to India. 1

The Indo-Myanmar Energy Deal

It was during the 2001 visit of Jaswant Singh to Myanmar that India started seriously thinking about bringing gas from Myanmar. During his three-day visit, Jaswant Singh had discussed oil and gas exploration and supplies with General Than Shawe, Chairman of Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council. A decision was taken to explore cooperation in the hydrocarbon and power sectors as New Delhi offered to execute other mutually beneficial infrastructure projects.

The February 2003 visit of U Win Aung to India further boosted this cooperation in the hydrocarbon, power and energy sectors, particularly in the exploration of Myanmar's onshore oil and gas reserves. 2

India's major focus is on the A-1 Block northwest of Myanmar where South Korea's Daewoo International plans to drill an exploratory well towards the end of 2003 following the conclusion of its Seismic interpretation, geological survey and prospect evaluation. India's ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) holds 20 per cent and GAIL and Kogas hold 10 per cent each of the equity stakes in the A-1 Block in Myanmar.

Daewoo wants either sell gas to India or construct an LNG plant. The former option, however, seems to be more appealing to all involved in the deal. As far as building of a pipeline is concerned, there are three options. A pipeline can be built from A-1 Block to India through the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Bangladesh and the nearest landfall point in India in this case is Haldia in West Bengal. But the government of Bangladesh has to give consent to it. This may prove to be a difficult task given the nature of anti-India posture adopted by the present Bangladeshi government, and more so in the light of the recent statements of the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister in New Delhi. Bangladesh seems not even in a mood to agree to let India use its shallow waters to transport gas. The second option is to build a pipeline avoiding the Bangladesh territory, which means building a bigger pipeline, which includes deep waters of up to 2000 meters of the Bay of Bengal seafloor. India is unlikely to follow this option as it had avoided a deep-sea pipeline option to transport gas from Iran to India avoiding the 'insecure' Pakistani territory.

The last option is to take the pipeline through the insurgency-ridden northeast region of India. This option could in the long run prove to be a useful one in more than one sense: it could integrate the northeastern region more to the Indian mainland; it also could contribute to the economic benefits for the northeastern region as a whole. However, the Bangladeshi option reduces both the distances of the pipeline and its total expenditure. 3

Indo-Bangladesh Energy 'Cooperation'

The US company UNOCAL had long sought to pipe natural gas to India. In 2001, UNOCAL submitted a proposal to the state-owned oil company in Bangladesh PetroBangla for a 1,350 km pipeline to connect the Bibiyana gas fields in northeast Bangladesh to New Delhi. This proposal included building of a new 30-inch diameter, 1,363 km pipeline to transfer an initial capacity of 500 million cubic feet of gas per day to Delhi. 4

However, proposals to export gas to India are continuously held back by the anti-India tenor of Bangladeshi politics. Gas exports are a politically debated issue that the Bangladeshi politicians have used for petty electoral gains. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) came to office towards the end of 2001. While it had opposed gas sales to India as an opposition party, it restarted deliberations with UNOCAL to sell gas to India. Still politically manipulated public opinion in Bangladesh has put the mutually profitable gas sales on hold. Popular opposition in Bangladesh is driven by fears that the country will compromise its energy security by selling gas to India, and also certain kind of hatred towards India's 'hegemonic intentions'.

The Indian Energy ministry had put forward the proposal of "Trans-Myanmar-Bangladesh Gas Pipeline" for the approval of Bangladeshi Prime Minister. India's National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, had also discussed the transit issue with the present government in Bangladesh as soon as it came to office in Bangladesh. But none of these efforts seem to have worked out. 5

Bangladeshi non-cooperation does not stop there. It is also averse to allow the movement of Indian goods across its territory, which has forced India look for a land corridor from Kolkata to Nagaland through Myanmar. At present, Indian commerce to its northeast bypasses Bangladesh and travels through the narrow Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. 6

Statements by the important Indian politicians have also contributed to the growth and perpetuation of anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh. On more than one occasion India's Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani has gone on record saying that there are 15 million Bangladeshi refugees in India and that they will all be sent back. 7 Indian politicians and ministers have also repeatedly accused Bangladesh of harboring anti-Indian terrorists. This is not to suggest that Bangladesh has nothing to do with anti-India elements using that country as a transit point or that there are no Bangladeshi refugees in India. The point here is to avoid raking up politically and thus bilaterally sensitive issues in such a way as to protect vital commercial interests of the country.

Perhaps what is necessary for better regional cooperation and coexistence at this point of time is a reinvention of the Gujral doctrine, which aimed to go out of the normal 'Big Power-Small Power' relationship and help the small neighboring countries without expecting anything in return.

  1. The Hindu, 21st May 2003.
  2. http://www.gasandoil.com/goc/news/nts30683.htm.
  3. http://www.independent-bangladesh.com/news/dec/27/27122002pd.htm (Brig Gen (retd.) Sakhawat Hussain).
  4. http://www.unocal.com/globalops/b-ipipeline/.
  5. http://www.independent-bangladesh.com/news/dec/27/27122002pd.htm (Brig Gen (retd.) Sakhawat Hussain).
  6. C. Raja Mohan, The Hindu, 27 November 2002.
  7. Vajpayee pins ISI links to Dhaka, http://bangladesh-web.com/news/feb/09/n09022003.htm#A3
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