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Chabahar: Reviving the Great Indian Route

The Great Indian Route (Map courtesy: http://rivvallcivsstof.weebly.com/)

"It began, in all probability, in the capital Gandhara – Taxila (northeast India), and thereafter through the Hindukush entered Bacteria and the Oxus (Amudarya). Beyond, the route ran along the river and to Khorezm and running along the Uzboy, entered the Caspian Sea. Leaving the Caspian behind, the route reached the mouth of the river Kura. Thereafter the route went along the river through present day Azerbaijan (Caucasian Albania) and Eastern Georgia (ancient Iberia) and through the Suram Pass entered the valley of the river Rioni (ancient Phasis)… In the lower reaches of the Phasis (Western Georgia, the legendary Colchis). According to accounts left behind by Psuedo-Skymnus, there was at that time, a city of the same name where people of different nationalities lived. Amongst them were both Bactrians and Indians…

From here, through Evksynsky Point, this route led to the Greek cities of the Northern Black Sea shores and to those of Southeast Europe."

This is how Soviet/Uzbek historian and scholar Eduard Vasilyvich Rtveladze describes in his book "The Great Indian Route" a route that he concludes predated the Great Silk Road which had connected Bactria with Southwest China. Bactrian and Chinese merchants had traded along this older route which he called the "Great Indian Route" and it was this route, he says, that was the first trans-continental route in the history of civilization, that connected the Mediterranean Sea, the Southern Caucasus, Central Asia, India, and possibly, also China.

India, then, has not been a stranger to trans-continental trade routes, nor did her connections with Eurasia develop in the recent past; they predate even Buddhism.

The spate of activities around the Chabahar port, brings to mind Rtveladze's book. Will India be able to revive or resuscitate the Great Indian Route, of course, in a new avatar? It is imperative that it does. And Chabahar serves as the portal.

The broad participation in the virtual event to mark Chabahar Day last week certainly reveals India's vision. It was not limited to the traditional signatories of the Tripartite agreement – Iran and Afghanistan, but included Central Asian partners – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as Armenia and Russia. India has pitched for the inclusion of Chabahar port complex in  the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which includes Caspean Sea littoral states while culminating inside the Russian Federation. As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted in his address   at the Chabahar Day "Establishing an eastern corridor through Afghanistan would maximize its potential".

Also read: With India’s help Iran’s Chabahar port grows big to counter Gwadar backed by China and Pakistan

All of this signals the enormous stakes India has in this strategically located port in Iran's Sistan-Balochistan province on its east coast, along the Gulf of Oman for which it has announced investments of $500 million.

The immediate objective, suffering as India is from the tyranny of geography, was to transport goods to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan, which has consistently impeded land access from India to Afghanistan. India has successfully utilized the Chabahar port to ship 75,000 MT of wheat as humanitarian food assistance to Afghanistan in September 2020. India has also sent humanitarian aid to Iran through the port in its fight with locusts. The port has already handled 123 vessels and 18 lakh tons of cargo  from February 2019 to January 2021, according to government estimates. With the USA exemption the port from sanctions and with a possible return to the Iran nuclear deal by the Joe Biden administration India is hopeful of re-invigorating engagement with the port complex.

The next objective was to access Central Asia, which was earlier India''s neighbourhood, and now part of its extended neighborhood.

During his speech at the India Maritime Summit 2021, during which Chabahar Day was marked, Mansukh Mandaviya, Minister of State for Ports, Shipping & Waterways outlined the importance of connectivity with Central Asia. "The 21st century …will be a century of the sea, skies & space. In keeping with the high priority that we attach to enhancing regional connectivity between India, Central Asia & beyond".

Central Asia with its abundant natural resources, like oil and gas, uranium, gold, silver, agricultural products and many more assumes special significance for India.

For one, India has been eyeing Central Asian oil and gas, the latter especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has increased India's dependence on natural gas, as also it seems to reduce dependence on energy imports from West Asia. Next, Central Asia is a source of raw material and agricultural and other products like dry fruits and nuts. India is an enormous market for them. Thirdly, the Central Asian Republics (CARS) also represent and require many goods produced by India, especially machinery, consumer goods and pharmaceuticals.

Yet, all the CARS are landlocked countries. Of them Uzbekistan, the most populous, is doubly landlocked. Connectivity, therefore, acquires even greater salience, for the country. Exit to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean is of prime importance to it. That explains why Uzbekistan is expending considerable effort in forging connectivity partnerships along different routes but especially doubling down on routes to South Asia. It is in particular interested in the Indian market, especially with the global economic shift towards the east. (Many Uzbeks, for instance, are disappointed with the fact that much of the imported dry fruits in the Indian market which pass of as "Afghan" dry fruits, are actually sourced from Uzbekistan.) But Central Asia's most populous country also offers India a significant market.

The Uzbek Ambassador in Delhi Dilshod Akhatov says "Rtveladze has established that India and Uzbekistan had been connected for centuries and we wish to re-establish those ties." Connectivity would also reduce the country's dependence on any one power, which determines Uzbekistan's multi-vector foreign policy.

To that end, Uzbekistan is organising a conference on connectivity in July this year. The Uzbek minister of foreign affairs Mr. Kamilov had recently visited Delhi to invite his Indian counterpart to the conference. Meanwhile, the first Trilateral Working Group Meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on the joint use of Chabahar Port was held virtually on December 14, 2020, as a follow up of decisions taken during the virtual summit held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev few days prior to that, when Uzbekistan had evinced interest in using the Chabahar port as a transit port.

India has also invited Uzbekistan to join the INSTC, but Chabahar – which it can access either via Afghanistan or via Turkmenistan – offers the double landlocked country the shortest and most cost-effective exit to the Indian Ocean. An expert group is currently studying the details of Uzbekistan's participation in Chabahar.

India-Uzbekistan relations have been deepening in recent times with close cooperation in numerous fields, including defence. India has extended $448 million credit line to Uzbekistan. However, their full trade potential has yet to be realized and Chabahar port can help accelerate India-Uzbek trade and enhance Central Asia-South Asia cooperation and regional stability.