India-Afghan launch air freight corridor to skirt barriers created by Pakistan

India-Afghan launch air freight corridor to skirt barriers created by Pakistan
India and Afghanistan have launched a dedicated air freight corridor to boost bilateral commerce averting bottlenecks created by Pakistan in land connectivity between Central and South Asia.

A cargo aircraft carrying 60 tonnes of Asafoetida (Hing) took off from Kabul on Monday. It was flagged of by Afghan President M Ashraf Ghani. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju received the aircraft when it landed in New Delhi. A similar cargo aircraft flew from Delhi to Kabul on Sunday, carrying 100 tonnes of pharmaceuticals, water purifiers and medical equipment from India to Afghanistan.

The ceremonies in Kabul and New Delhi marked the launch of India-Afghanistan air-freight corridor, which Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had agreed upon in September 2016.

The air freight corridor is intended to improve landlocked Afghanistan’s trade connectivity with India and other countries in South and South-East Asia. It will also help India to access the markets of Central Asia and Europe through Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan.

Islamabad at present allows trucks from Afghanistan to carry goods through Pakistan only up to Wagah (a check-point on the Pakistani side of Pakistan-India border), and not up to Attari (a check-point on the Indian side of the India-Pakistan border). The goods have to be unloaded from trucks coming from Afghanistan in Wagah and loaded again on other vehicles to be brought to Attari and finally into India. The Afghan trucks then return empty to Afghanistan, as they are not allowed to carry goods from India.

Islamabad has repeatedly rejected calls by New Delhi and Kabul to allow hassle-free two-way trade between Afghanistan and India through Pakistan.

An Afghan news portal on Monday quoted Ghani saying that India and Afghanistan would “turn barriers into opportunities”

“The connectivity established through the Air Freight Corridor will provide Afghanistan, a landlocked country, greater access to markets in India, and will allow Afghan businessmen to leverage India’s economic growth and trade networks for its benefit,” Gopal Baglay, official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, said in New Delhi. “It would enable Afghan farmers quick and direct access to the Indian markets for their perishable produce.”

New Delhi, Kabul and Tehran already signed an agreement to turn the Chabahar Port on the South-Eastern coast of Iran into a transit hub to provide both India and Afghanistan connectivity to Central Asia and Indian Ocean, skirting the bottlenecks in Pakistan.

Ghani and Modi in September 2016 urged Indian and Afghan businesses to achieve a target of US $ 10 billion in trade over the next five years.

“We hope to extend air cargo flights to other cities between India and Afghanistan,” said Baglay, adding: “These routes and corridors are aimed at providing sea, land and air access route for Afghanistan to regional and global markets in South Asia and beyond.”

Pakistan has since long been looking for a “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and has been jittery about India's role in building infrastructure in the conflict-ravaged country.

Islamabad has been playing spoilsport in South Asian nations' pursuit for connectivity. It blocked several initiatives within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to enhance connectivity within and beyond the region.

Man-made filaments, articles of apparels and clothing accessories, pharmaceutical products, cereals, man-made staple fibres, tobacco products, dairy and poultry products, coffee, tea, meat and spices are among the items India currently exports to Afghanistan. Major imports from Afghanistan to India are fresh fruits, dried fruits, nuts, raisins, vegetables, oil seeds, precious and semi-precious stones.

India on Monday reaffirmed its commitment to assist Afghanistan “in all possible ways in its political, security and economic transitions to ensure emergence of a sovereign, united, democratic, pluralistic, stable, peaceful and prosperous country”.

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