Afghanistan is facing one of the worst food crises anywhere in the world with millions on the brink of starvation. But a shipment of 50,000 tonnes of wheat that India has offered to send to the country is waiting clearance from Pakistan with Islamabad sitting on New Delhi’s request that it allow the use of the shorter and cheaper land route for moving the consignment. Here’s what you need to know.
Why Does Afghanistan Need Wheat Aid From India?
As Afghanistan’s harsh winter sets in, the country is staring at an acute food crisis that threatens to expose about 22.8 million Afghans — more than half of the country’s estimated population — to crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have said. Especially at risk are 3.2 million children under five years of age who are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year while WFP and UNICEF had warned in October that “one million children were at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition without immediate life-saving treatment".
The country trying to recover from decades of war faces the combined impacts of drought, conflict, Covid-19 and the economic crisis that “have severely affected lives, livelihoods, and people’s access to food" even as the winter threatens to cut off areas “where families desperately depend on humanitarian assistance to survive the freezing winter months".
The UN bodies said that the present crisis represents the highest number of “acutely food insecure people ever recorded in the ten years" that the UN has been conducting relevant assessments in Afghanistan and the country is now home to some of the largest numbers of people in acute food insecurity.
Warning that this year’s drought conditions are likely to extend into 2022, FAO and WFP said that the UN “will need to mobilise resources at unprecedented levels" as its Humanitarian Response Plan remains only a third funded. To meet the food and nutrition needs of almost 23 million Afghans, they said, WFP may require as much as USD 220 million per month.
Why Is Pakistan Refusing To Clear Transfer Via Land Route?
In response to calls for immediate and urgen help, India came forward in early October to send 50,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan, seeking Pakistan’s permission to dispatch the consignment using the land route via the Wagah-Attari border near Amritsar in Punjab.
However, although Pakistani diplomats acknowledged to foreign media that India had approached them with a request to enable the overland transfer of the wheat, reports say that Islamabad did not directly get back to New Delhi on the request. The first public mention of India’s request from Pakistan, in fact, came when Pakistan PM Imran Khan met the Taliban government’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in early November ahead of a security conference on Afghanistan.
“The prime minister conveyed that in the current context Pakistan would favourably consider the request by Afghan brothers for transportation of wheat offered by India through Pakistan on exceptional basis for humanitarian purposes and as per modalities to be worked out," Islamabad said in an official release following the meeting with Muttaqi.
A Pakistani publication said that the “the development is significant on two counts: one, the Taliban government accepted the Indian aid and, two, Pakistan allowed it to be delivered through Wagah despite suspension of bilateral trade and overall tense relationship". The same report added that an Afghan foreign ministry spokesperson had “claimed that the prime minister of Pakistan allowed India to send wheat to Afghanistan via Wagah border".
India had in November organised a conference of national security advisers of countries in the region to discuss issues related to Afghanistan, but Pakistan and China refused to participate in the meet with Islamabad deciding to host Taliban foreign minister Muttaqi on the same day before holding a meeting of Chinese, Russian and US officials the day after.
Reports point out that Pakistan does not allow two-way trade via the land route between India and Afghanistan. That is, while it allows goods from Afghanistan to be moved to India via its territory, it does not permit India to send any items to Afghanistan. Hence, the request from India to use the Wagah crossing, which would mean that the wheat and medicines consignment would need to travel only about 650km to reach Afghanistan, a cheaper and quicker option than the alternatives that are available.
Are There Other Options For Sending The Wheat?
Last year, India had sent 75,000 tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan via the Chabahar port in Iran. Referring to that aid package, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said in November 2020 that Afghanistan’s growth had been constrained by its land-locked geography even as he pointed to India’s efforts to provide alternative connectivity through the Chabahar port and a dedicated air freight corridor between India and Afghanistan.
But that was when the democratically elected government was in power in Kabul and India was a key partner in the US-led efforts for the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Following the Taliban takeover in August this year, however, the situation on the ground is much changed, although the Taliban leadership has said it wants to have diplomatic ties with New Delhi and would offer protection to Indian officials on Afghan soil.
A report in the New York Times saids that India has “also turned to compacting wheat into high-protein biscuits to significantly reduce the tonnage" of aid consignments to Afghanistan, but the aerial route may not appear viable just yet in the wake of the recent takeover by Taliban. Reports say that India has stopped all commercial flights to Kabul since August 15, the day when the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, although the interim government set up by it — with which India is yet to establish diplomatic ties — has requested New Delhi to resume commercial flight operations to the country.
Shipments of wheat that India had sent to Afghanistan in 2017, reports said, had moved from the port of Kandla in Gujarat to arrive at Chabahar, taking about two days to cover the roughly 900-km sea route. The consignment had thereafter been loaded on trucks and moved by road to the Afghan province of Nimroz, which borders Iran.