LANDI KOTAL: Bilateral trade with Afghanistan via the Torkham border crossing is gaining momentum, albeit at a slow pace, as the government has decided to ease certain restrictions it had imposed on export and import to and from Afghanistan since 2016.
Relationship between the two neighbouring countries deteriorated due to the strict implementation of new border management policy after the Afghan border security forces reacted sharply to the construction of a gate inside Pakistani territory at Torkham border in early June 2016 and trading activities at the border hit a rock bottom with the annual quantum of bilateral trade nose diving from US$2.3 billion per annum in 2015 to a mere US$800 million in mid 2017.
Pakistan also imposed travel restrictions on Afghans coming to Pakistan for multiple reasons and only those Afghans were allowed entry into the country who possessed valid Pakistani visa on their passports.
Round-the-clock opening of border bearing fruit
The temporary route passes issued by the Khyber administration to tribesmen living in close vicinity of the border for their frequent travelling to Afghanistan were cancelled and instead they were first required to show their Computerised National Identity Cards while later they were allowed cross-border movement only after presenting their national passports.
Sabir Khan, a local trader residing at the Bacha Maina residential colony in Torkham said the new policy badly affected the local traders, vendors, part time carriers and transporters alike. “Over 10,000 local residents in different age groups and affiliated with diverse trading activities lost their jobs due to the new border policy,” Sabir Khan said.
Mr Khan however remarked that they did not lost hope and would continue to raise their voices from whatever platform available to them and also knocking at the doors of officials concerned, demanding a fair revision of the border policy in order to revive the declining trade with Afghanistan.
The untiring and relentless efforts of the local traders, custom clearing agents, transporters and even activists of various political and social organisations finally bore fruit when Peshawar Corps Commander Lt-Gen Nazir Ahmad Bhutt announced some major relaxations vis-a-vis bilateral trade with Afghanistan during his visit to the region on May 8.
The custom offices at the Torkham border were directed to provide round-the-clock, seven days a week service to exporters and importers alongside improving its computerised goods clearing system. Instructions were also issued to the border security officials to keep the border open till late in the night in order to facilitate arrival of late trade consignments from Afghanistan. Security clearance of empty vehicles coming back from Afghanistan was also eased so as to enable local transporters and traders to overcome the shortage of vehicles on Pakistan side.
These announcements were greeted and cheered by the local traders who had been clamouring for such drastic changes since early 2016.
“Its almost a month that such announcements were made at the level of Corps Headquarters but the implementation is not as desired,” Hayatullah Shinwari, president Torkham Custom Clearing Agents Association said when he was approached for his comments.
He said that the custom authorities have not yet extended their timing of goods clearance while the Web Based One Custom (WeBOC) system too was not yet rectified. “The net service is still very slow while the entire operation is carried out through power generators due to frequent power shutdowns, which cause delay in timely clearance of goods,” he added.
Mr Shinwari argued that his association had demanded the repeal of producing import permit at the time of clearance of imported goods but the custom officials were yet to adhere to their long standing demand.
He said that imposition of Regulatory Duty (RD) on import of fresh fruits and vegetables too was adversely affecting the import of these two important commodities from Afghanistan which was causing financial loses to local importers. Custom officials at the Torkham border conceded that though the RD was imposed on all import item to Pakistan since 1979 but it was never applied to imports from Afghanistan via the Torkham border till recently.
Hayatullah however expressed his satisfaction over the pace of Pakistani export goods to Afghanistan and said that sugar, wheat, cement, fresh fruits and vegetables were taken to Afghanistan in large quantities.
Taimur Khan, a young importer of coal and soap stone had a different point of view and he strongly advocated the strict measures adopted by both the security officials and custom department for regulating legal trade with Afghanistan while cracking down on those who were involved in under invoicing of their goods and concealment of their original consignments during the time of custom clearance.
“The coal import from Afghanistan have jacked up on daily basis from 50 to 60 vehicles up to 250 to 300 vehicles in a span of only one year time and that too with some corrective measures by the Pakistan government, especially the Frontier Corps which is now managing the entire border,” he informed, adding that soap stone import too was showing healthy signs.
Mr Taimur said that nearly eighty percent of the custom clearing agents were now frequently using the WeBOC system for clearance of the import and export goods and they face no difficulties. “The new system has greatly overcome wrong doings and corrupt practices in goods clearance,” he maintained.
He said with the abolishment of the production of a quarantine certificate at the time of export and import of fresh fruits and vegetables from either country have also boost up the cross border trade of these items.
“The condition of producing a quarantine certificate at the time of custom clearance had in the past resulting in rotting the perishable edibles which had caused huge financial loses to both importers and exporters,” he informed.
Inspector General Frontier Corps Maj-Gen Waseem Ashraf had after a meeting with local traders and transporters in mid May also hinted a gradual but limited revival of hand carts to be used for transportation of limited quantity of imported goods to Pakistan for the convenience of local youth who were attached to the small time business in thousands of numbers.
Immigration Officials at the border said that the number of Afghans coming to Pakistan with valid travel documents on daily basis have also increased many folds which have helped in reviving the almost ‘died down’ taxi operation from Torkham to major cities of the country.
They said that on an average some 12,000 Afghans cross the border every day while 4,000 to 5,000 people go back to their country daily. The increase in cross-border mobility of Afghans has also helped in reviving the restaurant business on the border, officials said.
Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2018