India signs MoU to hand over wheat to WFP in Kandahar

First aid convoy through Pakistan expected this month.

India signed an agreement with the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) for the distribution of 50,000 MT of wheat that it has committed to sending Afghanistan as part of a humanitarian assistance, with diplomatic efforts under way to begin sending truck convoys through Pakistan by road, expected to begin after Punjab elections on February 20 are completed.

The agreement was announced by the Indian Embassy in Rome, where Ambassador Neena Malhotra handed over the MoU for WFP to take charge of the wheat convoys when they reach Afghanistan, and to distribute them to those Afghans who are facing a humanitarian crisis. In a tweet, WFP headquartered at Rome called it a “landmark” agreement thanking India for the “generous contribution of wheat in support of the people of Afghanistan facing severe food shortages”.

According to the MoU, the wheat will be taken through Pakistan to the Afghan border crossing and handed over to WFP officials in Kandahar beginning February 22. The wheat will eventually be divided into five batches of 10,000 MT, to be distributed across the country on approximately 200 trucks that are run by WFP.

TheWFP runs its own logistics network inside Afghanistan, partnering with civil society groups, and has launched a global campaign for enough food and aid for the population facing malnutrition — estimated to be half the population or 22 million Afghans.

“The task before us is enormous, and every bit counts. India’s commitment for 50,000 MT is extremely important, especially in times of the pandemic, and we remain hopeful that the Indian government will extend its generosity for even more grain stocks when possible,” Bishow Parajuli, WFP’s India Country Director told The Hindu.

Officials said some details are still being finalised among Indian, Pakistani and Afghan officials for the transport. Although Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had cleared an Indian proposal to use the land route in November 2021 and the Taliban regime had welcomed the offer, officials said the Pakistani government had held up the process by insisting that Indian trucks would not be allowed to ply and eventually only cleared Afghan trucks to carry the wheat. More recently, the process has been delayed on the Indian side due to arrangements for Punjab elections, which were postponed from February 16 to February 20, and sources said they now expect to see the first trucks carrying about 3,000 MT wheat across the border to begin after polling..

Among other issues to be worked out was whether the Taliban government, which no country recognises, could commandeer the stocks of food aid. However, Mr. Parajuli said the WFP operates in Afghanistan, as it does in other countries, under the condition that it is able to provide the humanitarian aid “directly into the hands” of those that need it without any interference from the Taliban.

In addition, Iran has offered to facilitate some of the wheat through Chabahar port and then on to Afghanistan’s border via Zahedan. According to an official, “all clearances” have been issued for the transport from Tehran, after Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on January 8. However, it is unclear whether India will use the Chabahar route, which it had employed from 2017-2020 to transport about one million tonnes of wheat, before the Taliban took control of Kabul for now.

The route via Pakistan, which has been closed for all exports from India since 2019, and opened only as an exception, is likely to require several weeks for the transport of the current consignment, as infrastructure and labour required to load and reload the wheat has to be organised.

Pakistan had shut down all trade with India to protest the government’s changes in Jammu and Kashmir and Article 370 in August 2019. Subsequently, the Khan government had allowed Afghan exports to India to pass through the Wagah border, making an exception also for medicines from India during the pandemic. India has also flown several consignments of medicines and medical equipment to hospitals in Afghanistan on board flights.

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