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Indo-Afghan trade: Castles in the air? (hindu)

India needs to carry more weight in seeing through connectivity plans with Afghanistan

Two months after the India-Afghanistan air corridor was inaugurated with great expectations, news that it has been hit by a shortage of cargo planes is a cause for concern. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ashraf Ghani had agreed on the project during the Heart of Asia summit in Amritsar in December 2016, as a gamechanger to get around Pakistan’s obstructionist behaviour in delaying truck shipments from Afghanistan to the Wagah border. The fact that Mr. Ghani himself developed the plan, which allowed traders to pay what they would have to transport their goods by road with the Afghan government underwriting the rest, showed Kabul’s commitment to securing its trade links with India. Delhi too affirmed the importance it placed on the trade route: for instance, when the first cargo flight under the arrangement landed in Delhi on June 19, External Affairs Ministers Sushma Swaraj and M.J. Akbar were on the tarmac to welcome it. It is therefore surprising that the initiative has been hit by logistical problems within weeks, leaving traders in Afghanistan with tonnes of perishable produce only because a chartered aircraft line wasn’t secured in advance. Officials argue that these are just teething troubles that will be resolved at the earliest. However, a larger question remains. Shouldn’t India be optimising its efforts to secure connectivity and trade with other countries that lie to its west?

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A look at India-Afghanistan relations

Despite its commitment of $2 billion in development aid to Afghanistan, there are few new infrastructure projects that the government has taken up in the past few years. The big ones, mostly planned a decade ago, have been complete, including the Zaranj Delaram highway (which connects to Iran), the Herat dam, the Doshi-Charikar power project, and the construction of Afghanistan’s parliament complex. In addition, India’s plans for the Chabahar port in Iran and the trilateral agreement to develop transit trade also need close attention. The trilateral agreement has yet to be ratified in Iran, and tenders by India Ports Global Limited to develop berths as well as the railway line connecting Chabahar to the Afghan border at Zahedan (first planned in 2011) continue to be delayed. Similarly, there has not been sufficient follow-through on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline after its inauguration in 2015. Eventually, India’s dealings with both Afghanistan and Iran are not just about circumventing Pakistan. They should open up important new connectivity and commerce avenues, as well as develop markets in Central Asia, and through them to Russia and Europe. While it is heartening that Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari recommitted to the trilateral arrangement and development of Chabahar during his recent visit to Iran, regional connectivity needs more administrative will than just ribbon-cutting ceremonies and grandly announced plans that run aground when the government’s focus shifts elsewhere.

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