Daily wage earners suffer as Afghan transit trade shrinks

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Afghan goods into Pakistan through transit trade. Photo: Matiullah Achakzair/News Lens Pakistan.

Chaman: Samad Khan is busy unloading a 40-foot container from a train at the Chaman railway station. The effort tires out Khan, who is 82 and has a full beard that is completely white. He asks his fellow laborer if he can rest for a while.

“I need to catch my breath,” says Khan, as he sits down on the concrete platform.

It is early morning. The train station is not all that busy, now that the new Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) has pushed Afghan traders to pay more money to the both governments than they did under an earlier agreement between the two countries. Land-locked, Afghanistan depends on Pakistan for most of its trade through the Arabian Sea, carried out through the port city of Karachi.

Earlier, goods meant for Afghanistan were brought in through trains from Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh province, to the dusty border city of Chaman in southwestern Balochistan province. From here they were taken to the city of Kandahar across the border in Afghanistan.

Once, the keening hoots of train whistles resounded through the air, echoing back from the mud walls of the villages nearby as they warned people and traffic to stay out of the way.

The trains whistle no more. The tracks remain covered with a layer of dust.

Not long ago, the small train station at Chaman, with its white colonial era building, was a noisy place that bustled with activity, most of it related to the Afghan Transit Trade. It was the last stop for hundreds of containers loaded with Afghan transit goods at Karachi.

“Some 2,000 laborers and more than 2,500 transporters, including drivers, conductors and truck owners from Chaman, earned their daily wages from the Afghan Transit Trade route”, said Gul Zarin Khan, president of the Transit Transport Truck Association at Chaman.

Khan is one of the hundreds of laborers who loaded the trucks headed for Afghanistan with the transit goods. For them, it was the only source of livelihood in the town that has no industry or agriculture activity to engage daily wage earners like Khan.

“I have been a laborer since the Afghan Transit Trade first started”, says Khan, who was only a young boy when Afghanistan and Pakistan first entered into a cross-border trade agreement in 1965. “I earn in my old age to feed 17 people of my family”.

Like Khan, laborers that loaded and unloaded trucks with goods bound for Afghanistan have lost an opportunity to earn daily wages after the transit trade shrunk.

“More than 300 to 400 transit good containers would make their way to Afghanistan daily through this route with some some 10,000 families from the province benefiting as daily wage laborers, transporters and clearing agents”, said Daro Khan Achakzai, president of Chaman Chamber of Commerce. “But the number of containers has shrunk to only 20 to 40 now.”

Afghan traders have gradually changed their transit route from Pakistan’s Karachi port to Iran’s Chabahar port. The Afghan goods transit decreased after 2010 when Pakistan renewed the earlier Afghan Transit Trade Agreement inked in 1965. According to Daro Khan, the 2010 agreement charged Afghan traders a higher custom duty and insurance. Afghan traders also had a tough time due to frequent political maneuverings in view of the tenuous Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, delays at the Pakistani port in Karachi, and security issues along the route.

“These days only about a hundred laborers, transporters and clearing agents [in Chaman] earn their wages from this route”, said Daro Khan.

Where Samad Khan, a daily wage laborer, once earned 20 thousand rupees ($200 US) a month, he now makes only 6,000 a month. He told News Lens that most of his colleagues sit idle now that the Afghan transit trade has been reduced to a trickle.

The security situation in Pakistan is the main reason for traders to switch to the Chabahar port for the Afghan transit trade, said Muhammad Hannifia, an Afghan trader.

“More than 15,000 containers were stolen and looted when they were processed at Karachi port. We cannot take the risk as many of our containers were burnt and looted on their way from Karachi to Chaman,” he said.

The Afghan in-transit containers were burnt when militants attacked NATO supplies in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said Saifullah Khan, Deputy Customs Superintendent at Chaman.

“Both Afghan and Pakistan chambers of commerce have been holding meetings and we are hopeful that a better security situation will make Pakistan an attractive route for Afghan transit trade again,” he said.

According to Haji Lalai, an Afghan trader, Pakistani officials were more cooperative than Iranian but the tough rules and delays in processing of containers forced Afghan transit traders to change their route.

Abdul Halim, 35, a private agent who helped the Afghan transit trucks cross the border by processing their documentation, said he earned sufficient commission on each truck crossing into Afghanistan. Now he and his colleagues hardly make anything as the entire month goes by without any significant trade activity.

“One thousand trucks have been tied to the transit trade since 1965, taking goods from Chaman to Kandahar”, said Gul Zarin Khan, the president of Transit Transport Truck Association at Chaman. “Every truck has a driver, a conductor and a group of laborers whose lives have been badly impacted by the negligible flow of Afghan transit trade.”

On their part, the Pakistani border authorities say the trade goods taken to Kandahar from Karachi Port and Taftan (Pak-Iran border) make their way back into Pakistan via illegal smuggling routes to Balochistan province. From here, they are supplied to the rest of the provinces. This undermines market demand for locally produced goods.

“That’s not true because Afghanistan needs the transited goods for local use”, said Lalai, the Afghan trader.

Saifullah Khan, the deputy superintendent of Pakistan Custom House at Chaman, said smuggling of goods happened from the areas across the border in Afghanistan. “The border is long and porous; Afghan forces allow smuggling as the customs duty on goods is already paid to Afghanistan.”

“The secure way to carry in-transit goods in Pakistan is through the railway”, said Saifullah Khan. “It is both secure and inexpensive. The Pakistan Railway is capable of carrying some 100 containers a day. This can bring about Rs 10 million a day through the transit trade.”

Daro Khan Achakzai, the president of Chamber of Commerce Chaman, agrees. “After the renewal of the APTTA, transited goods are packed in containers, not loose goods available to smugglers. They [goods] are tracked in carriers that are insured.”

 

Abdul Razzaq, 35, used to sell the smuggled goods in Chaman. Now his business is at a standstill with both Afghanistan and Pakistan governments taking stringent steps to stop the illegal flow of goods through the border.

The paramilitary Frontier Corps seize the smuggled goods and hand them over to the custom officials in 12 hours, according to Manzoor, spokesperson for the corps.

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