|14 January 2005|
International - India & World
By Siddharth Varadarajan
YANGON, JAN. 13. India, Bangladesh and Myanmar ended their historic trilateral meeting here on Thursday with a formal joint statement committing themselves to the construction and operation of a pipeline which will allow natural gas to flow from fields off the coast of Myanmar through to India via Bangladesh.
When it is completed, the pipeline would be the first cooperative energy project of its kind in South Asia and is likely to serve as a catalyst for a wider set of bilateral and trilateral initiatives that could transform the economic geography of the subcontinent.
"The Government of Myanmar agrees to export natural gas to India by pipeline through the territory of Bangladesh and India to be operated by an international consortium as may be agreed upon by the parties concerned," the joint statement issued by the Energy Ministers of the three countries noted. "Bangladesh and India reserve the right to access the pipeline as and when required, including injecting and siphoning off their own natural gas."
Some fleet-footed work by Indian and Bangladeshi diplomats overcame a minor hurdle involving the question of whether the pipeline should be linked to certain bilateral transit and trade issues raised by Dhaka. Bangladesh had initially proposed, inter alia, that the question of accessing electricity from Bhutan and Bangladesh via Indian territory be mentioned in the trilateral joint statement. In the end, the two sides settled on a compromise in which the trilateral statement encourages merely Governments to pursue bilaterally those "issues of bilateral cooperation which impinge on their trilateral cooperation such as hydroelectricity and other diversified sources of energy supply, trade and transit."
At the same time, a separate bilateral statement was issued which took note of Bangladesh's specific concerns and India's assurances to examine these in a positive manner.
As matters stand, the precise route of the proposed pipeline will be decided on the basis of "ensuring adequate access, maximum security and optimal economic utilisation." A techno-commercial working committee comprising of representatives from the three Governments will meet in Yangon next month to begin work on concretising the proposal.
Characterising the agreement as `win-win-win' for the three countries, India's Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, told The Hindu that the pipeline would not just involve point-to-point shipment of gas from Myanmar to India. Rather, it would be a more complex and cooperative arrangement in which gas from Tripura and from Bangladesh's own fields in the Sylhet region could flow in to be used by petrochmeical industries in Khulna or Jessore in the west. "Our statement also provides for the siphoning of Myanmar gas. Thus, if Bangladesh wants to use some of that gas for domestic consumption, it can. And tomorrow, if it turns out that the Tripura gas is not enough for the needs of our own northeast, the same pipeline could be used to take Myanmar gas there."
Though several routes will be explored, Bangladeshi officials said the easiest would be to run the pipeline from the Arakan coast into Bangladesh via Cox's Bazaar. "That way, we minimise the hilly terrain. There could then be separate spurs for Tripura and Sylhet gas," said S.R. Osmani of Petrobangla.
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