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25 May 2016 Editorial


25 May 2016 

Raising the stakes with Chabahar

A trilateral transport corridor project, inked in Tehran this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Iran and Afghanistan, has the potential to alter the geopolitical map of South and Central Asia. Mr. Modi’s visit also put an end to years of ambivalence on the development of Iran’s Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, the focal point of the corridor project. New Delhi and Tehran had agreed in 2003 to develop the port, near the Iran-Pakistan border. But the project did not take off, mainly owing to international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, but also on account of inertia in Delhi. The removal of sanctions after Iran’s nuclear deal has provided New Delhi an opportunity to revitalise bilateral ties. The road, rail and port development projects, once implemented, will change the way India, Afghanistan and Iran do business. For India, the projects have specific economic and strategic significance. India and Afghanistan have failed to realise the full economic potential of their friendship owing to connectivity problems. The Pakistan link between India and landlocked Afghanistan has been an obstacle, given Islamabad’s tense diplomatic ties with both New Delhi and Kabul, and sometimes with Tehran too. Once the Chabahar port is developed, Indian ships will get direct access to the Iranian coast; a rail line to the Afghan border town of Zaranj will allow India a route around Pakistan. This will surely boost trade with Iran and Afghanistan. Besides, the proposed free trade zone in the Chabahar area offers Indian companies a new investment destination at a well-connected port city. India has already said its companies will set up “plants in sectors such as fertilizers, petrochemicals and metallurgy” in the zone. It will also supply $400 million worth of steel rails to Tehran to build the railway link.

From a strategic point of view, Chabahar is situated just 100 km from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, the centrepiece of a $46 billion economic corridor that China is building. Though the Indian investment in Chabahar, at $500 million, does not match the scale of the Chinese project, the Chabahar port will act as a gateway for India to Central Asia bypassing the China-Pakistan arc. The long-term potential of this connectivity is immense. The real challenge lies in execution. India’s record in finishing big-ticket projects abroad is far from consistent. Also, with Tehran becoming the new destination of global powers, India needs to energise its diplomacy to keep engagement with Iran on an even keel, irrespective of outside pressure. With the Chabahar project, India has raised the stakes in Tehran substantially, and also raised the bar on its own regional ambitions. It cannot afford to let bilateral ties drift again, as it happened over the past decade.

ISRO’s new frontiers

With the successful launch on Monday of the first technology demonstrator of the indigenously made Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has taken a baby step in building a vehicle that can be reused multiple times to launch satellites into orbit. The hypersonic flight, that lasted about 770 seconds from lift-off to splashdown in the Bay of Bengal, reached an altitude of about 65 km before re-entering the atmosphere at nearly five times the speed of sound. Many more such successful launches have to be undertaken before the RLV becomes a reusable launch system to put satellites into orbit. Some of the objectives of this week’s launch were to test the aero-thermodynamic characterisation of the vehicle with wings when it re-enters the atmosphere at hypersonic speed; the control and guidance system; the control system to land the vehicle at a specific location; and the hot structure, the basic body-carrying part of the vehicle with heat protecting tiles. The ultimate objective is to test the vehicle’s performance when it travels at a speed of Mach 25 using air-breathing propulsion. It will take 10 to 15 years, and several more launches, before ISRO readies a reusable launch vehicle for commercial use.

Building a fully and rapidly reusable launch vehicle will play a pivotal role in cutting down by as much as 80 per cent the cost of launching satellites into orbit. In fact, ISRO is already well-known for launching satellites at a far cheaper cost than other space agencies. Currently, the bulk of the launch cost comes from building the rocket, which can be used just once, as the rockets get burnt on re-entry into the atmosphere. No other space agency has reusable launch vehicles in operation, and ISRO has taken a lead in developing one. Learning from the mistakes of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in its space shuttle programme, ISRO will not use the same reusable vehicle to launch satellites and carry astronauts as it drastically reduces the payload capacity and thereby increases the cost per kg. ISRO will also use cutting-edge technology to shield the launch vehicle from intense heat to reduce, if not completely eliminate, refurbishment expenses. Getting this right would enable the vehicle to be reused within a very short span of time. If all works as per plan, ISRO should be able to break even after 25 to 50 launches, bringing down the cost of further launches on the same vehicle.


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