India-Afghanistan Air Corridor
The opening of the air corridor, which passes through the airspace of Pakistan, gives a major boost to trade and commerce between landlocked Afghanistan and India. The decision to open the corridor followed an agreement between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in September 2016. The decision was firmed up when both leaders met in Amritsar in December 2016, during the Heart of Asia Conference.
At present the frequency is two flights a month but there are plans for up to five flights a week from Kabul and Kandahar to New Delhi. Additionally, Kabul hopes to extend the air cargo flights to other Afghan cities such as like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad. It is hoped that from the current volume of bilateral trade of $700 million, the trade will increase to $1 billion in the next few years and lift Afghanistan’s exports of agricultural and carpet industries. Afghanistan has plans to install the necessary infrastructure including packaging facility and creating airport special zones for some commodities with India’s assistance, which will enable expansion of the trade. Both countries plan to sign an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for these and various other activities including the standardisation of items – e.g. Afghanistan has fruits and number of items but the price is not as good as it is because of lack of value-addition capabilities.
For the next three years, the Afghan government has decided to subsidise the air cargo, at 50 cents per kilo. Afghan exporters will be charged 20 cents per kilo, the same amount it costs them to put their goods on trucks, so as to encourage the air cargo traffic. The yearly subsidy is expected to be about $5 million.
Some critics have been quick to dismiss this air corridor as a public relations exercise. Commentators in the Chinese media, specifically the hyper-nationalist Global Times, have even argued that the corridor reflects India’s “stubborn geopolitical thinking” and its opposition to China’s connectivity project, but the truth is that opening of this air corridor is a historic moment and a development with huge significance for boosting the intra-regional trade.
Although India is the second largest destination for exports from Afghanistan, lack of easy access has been a dampener for the bilateral trade due to the obstinate attitude of Pakistan. Under the terms of a transit trade agreement signed in 2010, Islamabad, more specifically Rawalpindi, allows Kabul to send only a limited amount of perishable goods over its territory to India. However, India is not allowed to send any imports through Pakistani territory. Therefore the Afghan transport vehicles, which carried Afghan goods to Indo-Pak border in Attari, had to go back empty. Afghanistan had protested this practice and repeatedly requested Pakistan to engage in direct trade with India through the Pakistani territory. But Pakistan has kept on stonewalling Afghanistan’s requests.
This has prompted India to closely work with Afghanistan to create alternate and reliable access routes for the landlocked country. In January 2015, India had announced its decision to allow Afghan trucks to enter the Indian territory, through Attari land check-post for offloading and loading goods to and from Afghanistan.
The opening of this air corridor shows that business finds its way and that India’s relations with Afghanistan are direct and won’t be dependent on any third country. It shows a constructive attitude and engagement by India rather than that of Pakistan which has constantly chosen only to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and export terrorism and extremism from its factories of terrorist safe havens and mosques. Its nefarious and disruptive activities have only brought a setback to the economic growth and development of the region.
Naturally, the opening of this India-Afghanistan air corridor has caused an anxiety in Pakistan. On the day of the opening of the corridor, the Pakistan embassy in Kabul said in a statement that Pakistan too intends to open a transit route for Afghan exports. But there are enough reasons for Afghan traders to not count on Pakistan.
As tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have spiraled in recent months over Pakistan’s continued support to Afghan Taliban and the Durand Line, Pakistan has chosen to close the border crossings which has resulted in massive losses for the Afghan traders and farmers who have complained of fruit and other produce rotting without other options for shipping. This has caused a 27% decline in the trade volume between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Therefore, enough is said on Pakistan’s intentions.
For Afghanistan, the impact of the air corridor will be huge- the connectivity will allow Afghan businessmen to leverage India’s regional economic standing, growth and trade networks for its benefit and give farmers quick access to sell perishable produce. It would also give Kabul an alternate route to the Indian Ocean, which currently uses the Pakistani port of Karachi for sea trade. It also stands to benefit by the transit and trade agreement signed between India, Iran and Afghanistan. Along with this, there is a more long-term initiative to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar from which Afghanistan will surely benefit.
From a broader regional perspective, the air corridor is a political signal to Pakistan and the rest of the international community, that despite its deteriorating security situation and attempts by some countries dogged endeavour to complicate and precisely accentuate the precarious state of affairs, Afghanistan is ready to join hands with like-minded regional partners such as India to boost intra-regional trade. It is an initiative worth emulating by other South Asian nations, all of whom face the challenges of regional connectivity. The India-Afghanistan air corridor is indeed a modest start, definitely not like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or the One Belt One Road (OBOR) with grand optics and shrill propaganda.