Indian Foreign Ministry Reacts to Chabahar-Zahedan Railroad Controversy

Indian Foreign Ministry Reacts to Chabahar-Zahedan Railroad Controversy
Indian Foreign Ministry Reacts to Chabahar-Zahedan Railroad Controversy

India's Ministry of External Affairs has downplayed the recent controversy with its longstanding partner Iran, even as media reported that India had been dropped out of the Chabahar-Zahedan railroad project.
The ministry has ruled out reports of India being left out of the prestigious Chabahar rail project. 
Terming media reports as speculative, MEA Spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the feasibility survey has already been carried out and the spot assessment has been made. But the MEA official threw the ball in Iran's court by stating that the country has to make the final decision, Times of India reported.
"As far as the proposed railroad line is concerned," Anurag Srivastava said, "IRCON was appointed by the government of India to assess the feasibility of the project. It was working with CDTIC, an Iranian company under their Ministry of Railways in that regard."
In fact, Iran doesn’t have a ministry by this name. Its railroad affairs are managed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Railway that is affiliated to the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development.
"IRCON has completed the site inspection and review of the feasibility report. Detailed discussions were thereafter held on other relevant aspects of the project, which had to take into account the financial challenges facing Iran," Srivastava said.
According to India's Ministry of External Affairs, the issues were reviewed in detail at the 19th India-Iran Commission meeting in Tehran in December 2019. The MEA spokesperson said the Iranian side was to nominate an authorized entity to finalize outstanding technical and financial issues, which is still awaited.
Sources privy to information in Iran said, "The Chabahar-Zahedan railroad was 40% complete when Iran took over the project, as the Indian company was held up on account of US sanctions. Indian company IRCON was to shoulder the burden of share, $150 million, but Iran opened its own purse string to complete the project."
A senior official of Iranian Embassy further said, "Soon, the second phase of the rail project will also begin from Zahedan to Zaranj on the Afghan side, enabling hassle-free trade and movement. But we have kept the window open for IRCON."
Sources said Iran is also keen on Indian involvement in the railroad project, as the country is facing a financial crunch due to harsh US sanctions.
Chabahar Port, which has been a longstanding commitment between India and Iran since 2003, was finally operationalized in 2016 during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Iran.
Since then, despite difficulties posed by the sanctions situation, there has been significant progress on the port project. An Indian company has been operating the port since 2018 and has steadily scaled up traffic at the port.
Since December 2018, 82 vessels have been handled there, including 52 in the last 12 months alone. The port handled 1.2 million tons of bulk cargo and 8,200 containers. 
Proactive measures are currently underway to increase the use of Chabahar Port, both for Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mohammad Eslami flagged off track-laying operations for a railroad connecting the southeastern port city of Chabahar to the eastern city of Zahedan near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan on July 7. 
The project manager said 92,000 tons of rails are needed to complete the 700-kilometer track. 
The UIC60 rails manufactured by Esfahan Steel Company will be used in this project.
As per a contract with ESCO, the Isfahan-based company will supply 5,000 tons of rails in the first stage, of which 1,000 tons have been delivered. Track-laying of 1 kilometer of railroad is planned to be completed in one day. 
With the new railroad in place, 927,000 passengers and 2.8 million tons of cargo will be handled annually by March 2023. 
Average speed of freight trains will be 120 km per hour. Passenger trains will run at 160 km per hour. It will create jobs for 13,000 people and 3,000 will be involved directly in the project.    
As planned, track-laying of 150 kilometers of Chabahar-Zahedan railroad will be complete by March 2021.
Work on the project started in fiscal 2010-11, only to come to a halt for three years due to funding constraints.  
The railroad to Zahedan is crucial, as it is vital for connecting landlocked Afghanistan via Chabahar. The port in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan Province is strategically important for India too, allowing it easy access to Afghanistan and bypassing Pakistan. 
After connecting Iran’s only oceanic port of Chabahar to Zahedan, the railroad will be linked to Zaranj in Afghanistan. 
When Afghan cargo arrives in Zahedan, it can be transported to Chabahar and then to India.
Chabahar is of strategic importance for Iran as it is the country’s only oceanic port, which bypasses the narrow chokepoint of Strait of Hormuz connected to the Persian Gulf.
It is 70 kilometers west of Gwadar Port, the starting point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The China Overseas Port Holding Company operates Gwadar port.

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