Gas pipeline to China: Myanmar has it today; India had it 70 years ago

In July 2013, gas started flowing through a 800 km pipeline from the port town of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar to Kunming in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Gas is sourced from the Shwe offshore gasfield located close to the port. The pipeline has been built by the Chinese oil and gas major CNPC at a cost of $2.5 billion. There are six partners who have equity in the pipeline, including ONGC and GAIL. The capacity of the pipeline is 12 bcm per annum and it will contribute 6 per cent of China's annual demand. Myanmar will also get 20 per cent of the gas. The pipeline is of considerable strategic importance to China as it avoids an extra voyage of 1500 km for tankers from the Middle East which pass through the Malacca Straits choke point. Construction of a separate crude pipeline, following the alignment of the gas pipeline, will commence in 2014. But this is not the first time that Kunming is at the receiving end of an oil and gas terminal. One only has to go back 70 years in time to know that an oil pipeline was laid from India via Myanmar (then known as Burma) to Kunming.

In 1939, the Burma Road was opened, connecting Rangoon with Kunming in south-western China, through Mandalay in central Burma and Bhamo in northern Burma. When Japan invaded Burma and captured Mandalay in 1942, it cut the route which the allied forces used to ferry troops and materials to southe-western China where they were fighting the Japanese. It therefore became imperative to open up an alternative route from India. It was decided to construct a road from Ledo in the far corner of Assam to join with Bhamo, which had not been occupied by Japan, and connect with the Burma Road to Kunming. Originally known as the Ledo Road, it was subsequently renamed the Stilwell Road after General Stilwell, Chief of Staff to the Allied forces in the China- Burma-India theatre. While the road was under construction, men and materials including petroleum products had to be flown over 'the hump' (the eastern Himalayas) from Indian airfields to airfields in China at enormous cost (one tonne of fuel for every tonne transported!). It was, therefore, decided to lay separate pipelines from two ports in the then undivided Bengal to Tinsukia in Assam and then further across 'the hump' all the way to Kunming. The two ports at Calcutta and Chittagong were to receive ocean-going oil tankers from the Middle East. These lines were laid by American forces with the help of Indians and Chinese, using the most elementary pipeline technology which would horrify today's pipeline engineers. Short lengths of 6-inch pipeline, with a groove at each end, were bolted together using a steel victaulic coupling with a rubber gasket to prevent leaks. These were laid along the ground and in the case of India, alongside the Bengal-Assam railway line. It was only at river crossings that the pipeline lengths were welded together. In the early days of pipeline construction even wrenches were not available and were therefore fashioned out of one-inch pipe. To clean the pipeline from inside, 'pigs' were made out of discarded airplane tyres.

While the pipeline was being built from the Indian end, a similar exercise was started from Kunming and the two sections were eventually joined together. There were also branch pipelines that extended from the main pipeline to airfields on the pipeline route, such as to Kharagpur in Bengal. The entire length of the pipeline network was nearly 3,000 kilometres. With the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war came unexpectedly to an end and the pipeline lost its raison d'etre. Nonetheless, by the end of the war the pipeline had delivered half a million tonne of vital petrol and aviation fuel to China. The pipeline has been described as probably the most challenging engineering achievement in the whole of World War-II due to the typography in Burma and China where the pipeline had to go up to a height of 9000 feet and cross a number of 5000 feet deep river gorges. A 650 feet long suspension bridge made of local materials was built to carry the pipeline across the Salween River.

At the end of the war, the pipeline was sold as scrap to contractors and disappeared in an extraordinarily short period of time. However, it is believed that short pieces can still be seen half buried in the ground in northern Myanmar and in the Yunnan province of China.

The most interesting story of the pipeline is its starting point. Norm Maino who worked on the project wrote in an article, 'It is often stated that gas (gasoline) was pumped from Calcutta. Gas was pumped from the Burma Shell tank farm in Budge Budge located about 25 miles down the Houghly River from Calcutta'. When I joined the predecessor company of Bharat Petroleum i.e. Burmah Shell 55 years back, I was posted to the Budge Budge oil terminal. A couple of kilometers away from the main jetties was a very large tank farm surrounded by a high wall with a pumphouse on the right as one passed through the gate. I occasionally had to visit the tank farm for carrying out checks. The place was called Infinity. When I asked the person in charge as to the origin of the name, I was told that in World War II oil was pumped all the way to China or as he described it 'pumped to Infinity'!

Today Budge Budge is no longer the key oil terminal it used to be 50 to 70 years back. But before its significance in the closing year of World War II is forgotten, it is worthwhile to share this interesting bit of petroleum history.