NEWS & VIEWS
INDIA and Afghanistan had started air freight corridor project in July 2017 with great fanfare for imports and exports between the two countries. Within three weeks after the India-Afghanistan air corridor trade project was launched, it hit the snags in August 2017 as fruit exporters complained that procedural delays, particularly shortage of cargo planes, were causing major losses to them. Tonnes of fresh fruits, including apricots and melons, were left rotting at the Kabul airport. On July 20, the flight chartered by Afghanistan’s national carrier Ariana airlines failed to arrive on time, and the fruits were not moved to cold storage. Much of the load went only on July 29. Afghan traders angered by the losses said as much as 120 tonnes of fruits were waiting to be transported from the airport, and had demanded of the government to take swift action otherwise they would find it hard to continue exporting perishable produce to India.
Among the issues, said exporters, was the lack of “cargo screening machines” that necessitate packaging and repackaging, and the lack of adequate cold storage facilities at the airport. On the Indian side, traders said they worry about clearing the perishable goods quickly through Indian customs, and the process is yet to be streamlined. Till August 2017, only four cargo flights had flown between Afghanistan and India under the scheme, carrying about 160 tonne in total. According to another report, Afghan government has raised objections regarding short-weight of wheat dispatched to Afghanistan from Kandla port (India) by sea through Chabahar port of Iran. Either India’s weighing-process at the time of exporting wheat was inaccurate; or pilferage took place during loading/transportation. It is pertinent to mention that wheat from Pakistan was economical to Afghanistan.
As compared with Pakistan, India’s wheat looks cheaper for the time being because of general subsidy on farm inputs, and also Indian government’s offer of specific subsidy of $50 per tonne to exporters. But question is how long India could afford to give subsidies just to hinder Pakistan’s exports to Afghanistan? Secondly, Gwadar Port is deep-sea port which has the capacity to berth ships with much more capacity, whereas Chabahar Port is located at shallow waters. Finally, in view of Afghanistan’s refusal to sign agreement with Pakistan, Tajikistan is poised to join a separate initiative, which will connect Pakistan to Central Asia, bypassing Afghanistan entirely. Tajikistan’s request for inclusion into the Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA) — a deal between China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for facilitating transit traffic and trade — has been approved. It means Pakistan would not have to depend on Kabul for exports to Central Asian States.
While keeping in view, the distance, price and other issues not only wheat import but other items from Pakistan suits Afghanistan more; and ultimately Afghanistan stands to lose in trade with India. Of course, India’s objective to develop the strategically located Chabahar port along with the one with Afghanistan on road and rail network is meant to counter China and Pakistan’s alliance in South West Asia. India is committed to invest $500 million on development of the Chabahar port, but the bigger questions of feasibility of logistical linkages still remain unanswered. Like Pakistan and India, Iran too is competing for the Afghan market and its share in reconstruction opportunities and outreach to Central Asia. However, the projects like road network and rail link vital to connect Chabahar to Central Asian states are capital-intensive and time-consuming. Whereas some Pakistani analysts expressed concern over India’s efforts to bypass Pakistan and to contain China, Chinese leadership remains composed.
China Pakistan Economic Corridor is indeed part of a much bigger Chinese initiative known as ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR), which envisages new land and sea routes connecting China to Western Eurasia and East Africa. Many in India have been vocal in their opposition to China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which epitomizes the spirit and strength of Pakistan-China friendship and cooperation for regional peace, progress and prosperity. One Corridor and four dimensions pattern of cooperation was agreed by both sides for CPEC. The four key areas include Gwadar Port, Energy, Transportation Infrastructure and Industrial Cooperation. Initially, some USD46 billion were estimated for CPEC. Of this $ 34 billion were envisaged for the Energy Sector, $6.1 billion for roads, $ 3.7 billion for Rail Network and $793 million for Gwadar Port. And with additions it has touched $ 60 bn mark.
The port of Gwadar has already commenced full operations. Logistics will be transformed by CPEC as container ships that today have to make nearly 13,000 km sea voyage from Tianjin to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Malacca and around India can be replaced by cheaper container trucks that make a mere 2,000 km road journey from Kashgar to Gwadar. The infrastructure, which will connect Gwadar with the Chinese city of Kashgar in Xinjiang include highways and railways. In fact, the cost and freight of the shipments from India to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian states would be a lot more than the shipments from Gwadar to the above destinations. Thus, ultimately cost effectiveness will decide about the success of the ports, as distance from Mumbai to Chabahar is 930 nautical miles (1800 kilometer), and from Chabahar to Kabul is 1851kilometer. On the other hand, distance from Gwadar to Kabul is 1230 kilometer.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.