India on Tuesday sent the first consignment of 50,000 tons of wheat that it has pledged to give Afghanistan, where more than half the country is grappling with hunger.
The grain is being transported via Pakistan in a rare instance of the archrivals setting aside their deep differences to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to reach conflict-ridden Afghanistan.
A convoy of 50 Afghan trucks loaded with about 2,500 tons of wheat and bearing banners that read, “A gift from the people of India to the people of Afghanistan,” was waved off by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla at the Attari-Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan.
The wheat will be handed over in Jalalabad to the United Nations’ World Food Program, with which India has signed a pact to distribute the aid in Afghanistan.
The Attari-Wagah border crossing has been virtually closed to all exports from India since August 2019, when Islamabad suspended trade ties with New Delhi, but Islamabad allowed the shipment through its territory after a request from New Delhi.
It, however, took them nearly three months to sort out the logistics of the transportation.
Afghan trucks are carrying the wheat because Islamabad did not want Indian trucks to travel through its territory, according to reports. Pakistan has said it is opening the land route as an exception for the humanitarian aid.
Shringla said that India will fulfill its commitment to supply 50,000 tons of wheat in two to three months.
In a tweet, Afghanistan’s Karzai administration-appointed ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay, who was present at the ceremony when the trucks rolled out, said, “I thank the Indian government for the generosity displayed at a time when more than 20 million Afghans are facing crisis or the worse levels of food insecurity in more than three decades.” He said the wheat committed by India is “one of the largest food contributions done by any country in this difficult hour.”
The director of the World Food Program in India, Bishow Parajuli, who was also present at the ceremony, said, “All the help Afghanistan receives will be of extreme value and therefore this help coming from India is really timely and very important.”
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, India, which had helped build key development projects in the country, was largely sidelined and suspended its diplomatic presence in Kabul.
New Delhi, however, has reiterated it will continue humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, with the Indian Foreign Ministry saying in a statement on Tuesday that “it remains committed to its special relationship with the people of Afghanistan.”
New Delhi has sent five consignments consisting of half a million doses of coronavirus vaccines, along with 13 tons of essential medicine and winter clothing -- the latest being dispatched on Saturday.
In its annual budget presented earlier this month, India also allocated about $26.5 million for aid for Afghanistan – but the figure is at a lower level compared to last year, when it committed $40 million.
Political analysts say the humanitarian aid is a diplomatic route for India to build some links with the Taliban, which has welcomed India’s offer of help.
In January, the United Nations asked the international community for $4.4 billion for Afghanistan for 2022 -- its largest ever appeal for humanitarian assistance for a single country.
U.N. aid agencies have described Afghanistan’s plight as one of the world’s most rapidly growing humanitarian crises.
About 23 million people there face acute food insecurity, and 9 million are on the brink of starvation, according to the World Food Program.