NEW DELHI - In a quiet, yet significant, exception to its transit policy for Indian goods, Pakistan has let Indian wheat pass through its territory to Afghanistan.
Source in Indian government said about 100,000 tonnes of wheat have, for the first time, moved over the past few months from Kandla to Karachi and from there by rail and road to Torkham, the transit point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This is part of the 250,000 tonnes of wheat India has pledged as assistance to Afghanistan, reported Indian Express on Sunday.
Officially, Indian government officials explained that this cannot be considered as a change in Pakistan’s stand as the arrangement has been tied up in a manner to show that Afghanistan is picking up its consignment of wheat from Kandla. Technically, Afghanistan is using Pakistan for transit, not India and that is how a major obstacle was circumvented.
But on the ground, sources said, the trading activity is being carried out by Indian shipping agents who deliver the goods at Karachi, from where Pakistani transport agencies take over and deliver it at Torkham. “We have just told the Afghans to make arrangements from Torkham. Let’s not forget Karachi is a busy commercial trading port and all this moves very smoothly as regular commerce, unless there is political interference,” explained an insider privy to the details.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have entered into a trade and transit agreement, which was not extended to India due to Islamabad’s concerns. However, it does allow Afghanistan duty-free access on a list of goods across Torkham and Chaman transit points. Pakistan, it may be noted, has repeatedly refused transit of Indian goods through its territory even though they qualified under humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The problem was so acute at the start, right after the fall of the Taliban, that wheat consignments would even rot by the time they reached Afghanistan through a circuitous route via Iran.
To avoid this, India entered into an understanding with Afghanistan under which the wheat would be used to make fortified biscuits and then transported to Kabul. These biscuits were then distributed in schools in attractive packets bearing the India label. While this worked to quite an extent, larger problems occurred with transporting goods and material for infrastructure projects.
For instance, the project to lay transmission lines for bringing electricity to Kabul from the Uzbekistan border overshot its deadline by a few years because of the delay in transporting transformers and transmission poles. In fact, India had to carry out one of its largest airlift operations to move five mega transformers from Delhi to Kabul. India has tried to work out an alternate route through Iran, but the project at Chabahar has been moving slowly due to various other political reasons.
Despite these practical difficulties which adversely affected Afghanistan too, Pakistan never showed any flexibility. It continued to rely on the old logic that easier access for Indian goods was incongruent with Pakistan’s own national security interests. While Islamabad has far from overcome that mindset, sources said, these were initial signs of fresh thinking in Pakistan despite its unpredictable domestic political scenario.
New Delhi, in fact, has been quite surprised by the response from the Zardari-Gilani government. In the past year, the two sides have made remarkable progress on the trade front with Islamabad taking an important step to move from a positive to a negative list of items, moving forward on the most-favoured nation issue and also exchanging high-level visit to resolve contentious issues. At Pakistan’s request, India too has made a cautious start at resuming back-channel talks.