Months after the ceremony in May and the pledges by India to inject $500 million into the project, the much-heralded port of Chabahar remains a sleepy outpost as well as a shadow of the Chinese-built port of Gwadar, 100 kilometres to the east across Iran’s border with Pakistan, according to a report over Indian TV channel.
On a recent visit, roughly 13 years after India first agreed to develop the port of Chabahar, a single ship floated at the main jetty. Most of the cargo containers scattered in an asphalt lot bore the logo of the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. In an adjacent harbour, a dozen wooden dhows, or traditional fishing boats, bobbed in the water.
“What you’re seeing is the problem with many of the Indian commitments abroad,” said Sameer Patil, an analyst at Gateway House, a research organisation in Mumbai. “Once a prime minister makes that commitment, the parties find it difficult to move the process forward. The Indian bureaucracy takes its sweet time.”
Chabahar was supposed to be an easy win: India would bankroll a hub to rival the Gwadar port. Iran would get a major ocean port outside the Strait of Hormuz and spur growth in its poor eastern region, and Afghanistan would gain road and rail links to a deep-water port that could boost its war-ravaged economy. But more than a decade on, the strategic asset is languishing.
“They should’ve given the contract to the Chinese,” said Zheng Ke, a 37-year-old businessman from China, speaking in Persian at his supermarket in Chabahar’s free trade zone as Iranian customers snapped up Chinese-made clothes and kitchen utensils and streamed through check-outs staffed by Chinese workers. “They’d get the port done in no time.”
Despite the project’s importance, Indians and Iranians haggled for two years over who would pay $30 million of excise duties on port equipment imported into Iran, according to Iranian diplomat Hamid Mosadeghi.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chabahar could boost India’s stature in the region. However, the slow pace of its development has drawn criticism.