KABUL - Afghanistan's richest iron-ore deposit drew bids from an Indian government-backed group, two Iranian contenders and Canada's Kilo Goldmines Ltd., an Afghan official said.
Afghanistan's mines ministry opened the bids yesterday for the estimated 1.8 billion metric tons of ore at Hajigak, 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Kabul, said Abdul Jalil Jumriany, a ministry director-general. The tender is the biggest on offer in a country that the U.S. government estimated last year holds $1 trillion in untapped minerals.
Seven Indian steel and mining companies, led by state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd. and NMDC Ltd., offered a bid that is part of an effort by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government for a bigger role in a nearby country whose stability it calls essential.
In neighboring Pakistan, the politically powerful army "would have concerns about India having such a new role" in Afghanistan, said Bashir Ahmed, a senior fellow and retired army brigadier at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad.
"Many in the Pakistani establishment are quite sensitive to India's presence in Afghanistan," seeing it as a security threat, he said.
The Indian group includes state-owned Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd., and private-sector companies JSW Steel Ltd., Jindal Steel & Power Ltd., Monnet Ispat Ltd. and JSW Ispat Steel Ltd. A separate Indian contender is Corporate Ispat Alloys Ltd., said Jumriany in a text message listing the bidders.
Two Iranian bidders are Gol-e-Gohar Iron Ore Co., one of Iran's biggest iron ore producers, and Behin Sanate Diba Co., a privately run group of 10 investment, mining and industrial companies, some of which are partly state-owned, said Leyla Rashno, the group's director for tenders.
Rashno declined in a phone interview in Tehran to say whether the group's bid has been encouraged or backed by Iran's government.
Toronto-based Kilo Goldmines, which trades on Canada's TSX Venture Exchange, focuses mainly on gold mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The other bidder for Hajigak is Acatco LLC, whose owner, Afghan-American businessman Nasir Shansab, lives near Washington and said in a phone interview his partnership, which employs 30 people, would bring in unnamed additional partners to develop the mine.
Indian authorities decided to facilitate their country's group because "it makes business and strategic sense to have a presence in mining in Afghanistan," Indian Mines Secretary S. Vijay Kumar said in January. Hajigak also may offer India an investment foothold in Afghanistan to rival that of state-owned Metallurgical Corp. of China Ltd., which is developing the country's biggest copper deposit, at Aynak.
India and Afghanistan accused Pakistan's army of secretly backing the July 2008 Taliban bomb attack on India's embassy in Kabul, one of at least three deadly attacks on Indians in the city since that time. Pakistan denied the accusation.
The mines ministry will this month recommend one bid to receive the license, plus one alternate, or reserve, bid, for each of four blocks at Hajigak, a ministry statement said. Ministry spokesman Jawad Omar said the awards will require approval by the cabinet and by Afghanistan's parliament, where sessions have been stalled by a dispute over which candidates should be seated following disputed elections a year ago.
Hajigak is a range of treeless mountain ridges with a thin population of villagers who graze animals and farm the valleys below. The costs of developing mines will be increased by the need to build paved roads or rail lines to connect the site to potential markets.
While the ultimate cost of mining Hajigak is unclear, Indian companies "should have every reason to go for the Hajigak mines" if the cost of acquisition is about $1 to $1.5 per ton, said Ravindra Deshpande, an analyst with Mumbai-based Elara Securities Ltd.
While the bidders do not include the world's biggest mining groups, which President Hamid Karzai's government had hoped to attract, the six contenders represent progress in attracting investors' interest. Afghanistan canceled a previous tender last year when only one of seven initial competitors showed up to visit the Hajigak site.
The U.S. Defense Department has backed efforts to draw in international investors that it says are essential to stabilizing Afghanistan. Still, the decade-old war and corruption remain obstacles. Afghanistan last year tied with Myanmar for the second-worst ranking among 178 countries in Transparency International's perceived corruption index.
Karzai's government has pledged to manage and publish its mining contracts under the provisions of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI, a voluntary anti- corruption regime, Mines Minister Wahidullah Shahrani has said.
EITI, based in Oslo, Norway, advocates rules for improving the transparency of contracts and payments in mining and oil and gas extraction. The group rates 11 countries, including Nigeria, Norway, Liberia and Azerbaijan, as fully compliant, while 23 states, including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Indonesia, are pursuing the two-year process to achieve that status. (Bloomberg)