Reviving energy cooperation in South Asia


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Editor's note:

Sambandh Scholars Speak, part of the Sambandh: Regional Connectivity Initiative, is a series of blog posts that feature evidence-based research on South Asia with a focus on regional studies and cross-border connectivity. The series engages with authors of recent books, articles, and reports on India and its neighbouring countries. This series is edited by Saneet Chakradeo, Research Analyst at Brookings India.

In this edition, Saheb Singh Chadha interviews Dr. Mirza Sadaqat Huda on his book “Energy Cooperation in South Asia: Utilising Natural Resources for Peace and Sustainable Development”, published in April 2020 by Routledge.

Recent developments in South Asian energy security such as the India-Nepal petroleum products pipeline and the India-Bhutan joint venture hydroelectric project have revived conversations on energy cooperation in the region. While these projects are a welcome development, like many others before, they have experienced logistical, bureaucratic, or political delays.

In this context, Mirza Sadaqat Huda’s book offers unique insights into addressing the underlying problems in regional energy cooperation. Based on his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Queensland, the book uses four case studies (the Tipaimukh Dam, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI) Pipeline, and the Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional grouping) to layout four distinct frameworks for energy cooperation, offering learnings on how challenges of a similar nature can be overcome in future projects.

Saheb Chadha: Your book describes India as a “hydro-hegemon” in the chapter on BBIN cooperation. Could you elaborate on the term and how it has contributed to distrust among India’s neighbours?

Mirza Huda: The term hydro-hegemony is used to describe a situation where power disparities between members of a shared river basin results in the maintenance of the status quo on water allocation. More powerful members of shared river basins, such as Egypt in the Nile and Turkey in the Euphrates-Tigris Basins use a range of strategies, such as coercion, resource capture, and inequitable treaties to control water resources.

In South Asia, India has used its relative advantage in military and economic power to dominate regional interactions on water sharing. Historically, India has only agreed to cooperate on a bilateral level on water issues, despite Nepal and Bangladesh’s preference for multilateral, basin-wide cooperation on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin (GBM). Some analysts have argued that India has preferred to engage bilaterally in order to maximise on disparities in size and power.

Due to the politicised nature of interactions on water sharing, the focus of existing bilateral agreements is on establishing sovereign rights over water, rather than the collective development of shared resources. This reductionist approach cannot address climate change and extreme weather events, which is set to drastically change the ecology of the GBM Basin. During my fieldwork in Nepal I spoke to several policymakers who argued that the political and ecological repercussions of India’s hydro-hegemonic policies can undermine the development of BBIN hydroelectric projects.

In my book, I have proposed an Environmental Peacebuilding framework for informing the planning processes of BBIN hydroelectric projects. I argue that policies conceptualised from an environmental peacebuilding framework can resolve some of the environmental challenges to BBIN hydroelectric projects and have a transformative impact on regional politics by incentivising integration and reducing conflicts.

I suggest a policy mechanism by which the ‘high politics’ of energy security can be linked to the ‘low politics’ environmental cooperation, thereby facilitating energy security, multilateral river basin management, and peacebuilding. Since the 2018 guidelines of the Indian power ministry have formalised multilateral cooperation on electricity trade, hydroelectric cooperation can be an important entry point towards integrated river basin management of the GBM.

SC: You suggest a ‘peace-building approach’ to energy diplomacy that engages both energy security and conflict resolution imperatives. How do you think this differs from the current practice of diplomacy in the region?

MH: South Asia’s regional geopolitics is determined by the conflation of identity, politics, and international borders. Almost every conflict in South Asia – be it the Kashmir issue, the Kalapani dispute, or deadly confrontations between Bangladeshi citizens and the Border Security Force (BSF) of India are rooted in the region’s messy borders. Due to the history of the partition, borders are both a physical and social construct, looming large in domestic-level ethnic and religious conflicts. Transnational energy projects would thus engage with multiple social and ideational issues rooted in South Asia’s borders.

Before implementing cross border infrastructure projects, policymakers should identify the direct and indirect objectives of these initiatives. In my opinion, the goal of cross-border infrastructure in a conflictual region like South Asia should not be confined to the enhancement of energy security. We must also perceive energy projects as mechanisms of conflict resolution. In other words, energy projects should be deliberately designed to facilitate integration and peacebuilding. In my book, I argue that currently, cross-border energy projects are perceived only as conduits of resources that are vital to national security. I call this the ‘national security approach to energy diplomacy’.

In the last seven years, India’s renewed enthusiasm for regional energy cooperation in South Asia has led to concrete progress on multiple cross-border energy projects. However, New Delhi’s enthusiasm for South Asian integration after years of neglect has been marked by a paradoxical assertion of hard borders and ethno-nationalism, which creates significant concerns for the sustainability of cross-border energy projects. The regional repercussions of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and the continuation of insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan have contributed to the entrenchment of ultra-nationalism and ethnic and religious cleavages.

SC: Your book highlights the potential of extending the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, such as TAPI-B to Bangladesh, as well as keeping the interests of local communities and other external powers in mind. Do you feel this might complicate negotiations and perhaps stall progress?

MH: An increased number of stakeholders can indeed create complexity in an energy project. However, in security-obsessed South Asia where elite actors dictate discourses on development, it is fundamental that a broader group of stakeholders are involved in the cross-border energy projects. In my book, I have argued that one of the fundamental challenges to the realisation of the TAPI pipeline is that existing policy discourse has focused almost exclusively on the national security interests of the four countries involved in the project. This limited perspective has perpetuated the orthodox, defence-centric perception of energy and undermined the realisation of pipeline projects.

In security-obsessed South Asia where elite actors dictate discourses on development, it is fundamental that a broader group of stakeholders are involved in the cross-border energy projects.

Interview respondents from India and Pakistan told me that the ‘securitisation’ of pipelines is one of the fundamental challenges to their implementation. In my book, I suggest a framework for de-securitising the TAPI pipeline, which takes into account the interests of regional countries, extra-regional powers, international organisations and most importantly, that of local community members. Firstly, I argue that the TAPI can be deliberately designed to converge the interests of regional countries and external powers. I suggest a number of policy interventions that can be undertaken to encourage inclusive cooperation between state-level actors, energy companies, and institutions. Secondly, I undertake a comparative analysis of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline (BTC) to identify ways by which the interests of local communities that live along the route of the TAPI can be addressed via socio- economic programmes and effective social and environmental governance. This can reduce the explicit emphasis on the physical security of the pipeline by including human security concerns within the project’s blueprint. My conclusion is that taking into account a broader group of stakeholders can create a shift in the perception of the TAPI from a defence and security realm to that of inclusive cooperation.

SC: The construction of a Chinese pipeline in the same region as the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI) pipeline raises questions about resource constraints for a second pipeline. Does this also impose any political constraints, due to the Sino-Indian competition in South Asia?

MH: Finite resources are not only an impediment to the revitalisation of the MBI but can also impede the TAPI. China has been very successful in constructing pipelines in Myanmar and Central Asia. Technological developments and the discovery of new reserves can increase the supply of available resources in these regions. However, geopolitical conflicts between India and China, as exemplified by the tragic incident in Ladakh, can complicate transnational energy projects. Some South Asian policymakers I spoke to suggested that cooperation between India and China on securing international energy resources can result in economic benefits for both countries. Unfortunately, the political repercussions of the COVID 19 pandemic and territorial conflicts between India and China will prevent any substantial cooperation between the two countries on energy in the near future.

SC: In your chapter about the Tipaimukh dam, you outlined the feasibility of the ‘Cooperative Security Approach’ and ‘Share the resources’ model. Postcolonial states, including South Asian countries, tend to prize the resources in their territory and their ownership over them. How much of a challenge is this mindset in reducing the ‘Sovereignty Based Approach’ and ‘Divide the resources’ model?

MH: South Asia as a region must collectively address climate change and energy insecurity. Yet, a regional approach to these critical challenges is undermined by resource nationalism. For decades, bilateral agreements on water in the region have only focused on dividing resources. Collective action on resource development has been mentioned almost as afterthoughts in these agreements and has never seen concrete implementation. In my book, I argue that for South Asia to transition from dividing to sharing resources, there needs to be a change in the way resources are conceptualised and how costs and benefits are shared.

One of the persistent issues that I encountered in my research is that people in a particular region or country are unhappy if local resources are used to generate energy in another area. To address this issue, politicians must change the way they communicate key messages to their citizenry regarding natural resources. In my book, I argue that politicians often talk about the total cost of resources, but not the total benefits that can be derived from exploiting these resources. For example, in the early 2000s, political discourse on energy security in Bangladesh focused almost exclusively on the total amount of gas reserves in the country. This led to resource nationalism, resulting in the shelving of a gas trade deal between India and Bangladesh. However, instead of discussing the total cost of gas reserves, if politicians and wider intelligentsia in Bangladesh discussed the potential benefits from the exploitation of these reserves towards poverty alleviation and socio-economic development, it could have led to broader consensus on the need for regional cooperation on energy.


People in a particular region or country are unhappy if local resources are used to generate energy in another area.

Of course, such messages need to be followed up by the development of benefit-sharing mechanisms as well as resettlement and rehabilitation plans for those who stand to be adversely affected by energy projects. While I use the example of gas trade, similar communication strategies and benefit and compensation policies can create broader consensus on the need to collectively harness the hydroelectric potential of South Asia’s rivers. Overall, astute political leadership is fundamental to creating broad consensus on ecological interdependence in South Asia.

About the expert

sadaq31Dr. Mirza Sadaqat Huda is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. Currently, his research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative, the politics of renewable energy in Asia and global climate governance. Dr. Huda’s analysis has been published in Energy Policy, Geoforum, Water International and Energy Research and Social Science. He is an Australian citizen and has previously worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University and has held research appointments at the University of Queensland and Griffith University.

Email: mirzasadaqathuda@gmail