India is, for the first time, sending a shipment of food to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chabahar, to which it has committed large-scale investments.
On Sunday, a shipment of 1.1 million tonnes of wheat left Gujarat’s Kandla port for Chabahar, located in Iran’s southeast, in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani observed the despatch of the shipment via video conference.
‘The shipment of wheat is a landmark moment as it will pave the way for operationalisation of the Chabahar port as an alternate, reliable and robust connectivity for Afghanistan,’ a statement from the MEA read. Pakistan currently blocks overland transit between India and Afghanistan.
‘Six more wheat shipments will be sent to Afghanistan over the next few months,’ according to the MEA.
The Chabahar saga
India and Iran agreed to develop Chabahar port together in 2003, but the project went into cold storage for a decade, with Iran facing international sanctions over its nuclear programme.
During a visit to Tehran last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a trilateral agreement with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to develop a trade corridor through land-locked Afghanistan. The Indian side also struck a deal with Iran to develop Chabahar, a critical link in the corridor.
At present, India Ports Global, a joint venture between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Kandla Port Trust, is expanding Chabahar’s capacity to 12 million tonnes per year. Separately, India’s EXIM Bank is offering half a billion dollars in loans to Iran to increase rail connectivity to the port, while state-owned Ircon International is slated to build a $1.6 billion railroad to the border town of Zahedan. For India, the ultimate prize is not just Afghanistan, but connectivity to Central Asia.
While there are doubts about the economic viability of the project, India also has geopolitical stakes in the ambitious project. Reacting to news of the grain shipment, Arvind Gupta, the head of the think tank Vivekananda International Foundation tweeted that India ought to ‘launch a regular shipping line to Chabahar even if that requires government support initially. That will be a strategic move.’
The strategic value of Chabhar is obvious to Indian observers. For decades, Pakistan has sought to block India’s overland access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chabahar and the planned corridor through Iran promise to bypass that blockade. The port is also less than 100 km from Pakistan’s Gwadar port, the terminus of the far grander China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
However, India’s partner at Chabahar does not share those priorities. Iran has mended its relations with Pakistan in the last few years. And after years of suffering international sanctions, it is primarily interested in Chabahar’s economic potential. Days after Modi’s successful trip to Tehran, the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan made it clear that ‘Chabahar is not a rival to Gwadar’ and that both Pakistan and China were welcome to develop other sections of the port. Soon after the ambassador’s remarks, former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar wrote a column in which he concluded that ‘China will likely be a major beneficiary of Chabahar. ‘