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India-Afghan air trade facing tough times

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With no secured provider for chartered flights, tonnes of fruits rot at Kabul airport

Weeks after the India-Afghanistan air corridor trade project was launched, the project has run into rough weather, with fruit exporters complaining that procedural delays, particularly a shortage of cargo planes, are causing them major losses.

Matters came to a head last week, when tonnes of fresh fruits, including apricots and melons, were left rotting at the Kabul airport. The flight chartered by Afghanistan’s national carrier, Ariana airlines, on July 20 failed to arrive on time, and the fruits were not moved to cold storage. Much of the load went only on July 29, officials say. Angered by the losses, traders, who say as much as 120 tonnes of fruits are still waiting to be transported from the airport, demanded that the government take swift action or they would find it hard to continue exporting perishable produce to India.

‘Inaccurate reports’

Calling the reports of more than 100 tonnes of rotting fruits “inaccurate and misleading”, India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Manpreet Vohra, however, admitted that the lack of a secured provider for chartered flights had caused some disruptions.

“Some fruit did go bad, but the exporters also cut corners by not using cold storages sufficiently,” he said, adding that the the Afghan government was sorting out issues in chartering aircraft.

Among the issues, say exporters, is the lack of “cargo screening machines” that necessitates packaging and repackaging, and the lack of adequate cold storage facilities at the airport. On the Indian side, traders say they worry about clearing the perishable goods quickly through Indian customs, and the process is yet to be streamlined.

Procedural delays

“We were told that all these procedural delays would be sorted out within a month of the corridor starting, but there are yet to be resolved,” Sayam Pasarlay, the spokesperson for the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), told The Hindu over the phone from Kabul.

As a result, according to figures from both the ACCI and the Indian Embassy in Kabul, only four cargo flights have flown between Afghanistan and India under the scheme, carrying about 160 tonne in all.

Officials in both Delhi and Kabul said the problems were “teething troubles”, and would be sorted out with the inclusion of the private Kam Airlines to carry some of the load. “Naturally the pilot air corridor project will go through some bumps before it becomes fully smooth. Currently, it is our fruits season and apart from some technical issues, there is a high demand for cargo (to other countries) and the Afghan government has been trying to catch up and added a private airline Kam Air to meet the demand together with Ariana airlines,” Afghanistan’s Ambassador in Delhi Shaida Abdali told The Hindu.

On June 19th, India and Afghanistan had inaugurated the project, an effort officials say was initiated by President Ashraf Ghani, in order to work around the difficulties posed by Pakistan’s refusal to allow Afghan transit trade to India by road and rail. The land route, that was to be allowed by the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) of 2010, has constantly run into issues because of tensions between India and Pakistan. After months of threatening to cut off Pakistan’s access to Central Asia as reprisal, President Ghani is understood to have decided on this alternative, according to which the Afghan government would bear the cost of air freight on specially chartered cargo flights, allowing the exporters to pay on the trucking fare overland from Kabul and Kandahar to Amritsar and Delhi. (The Hindu)