For more than a decade, for most Indians, the province of Kandahar in south Afghanistan has evoked memories of the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight. Now Kandahar is making a concerted effort to erase those impressions and revive an older, gentler memory of the region by bringing to India its famous ruby-red Kandahari anar.

As Afghanistan tries to re-emerge from decades of brutal war and invasions, Kandahar is making inroads into India with consignments of its famed succulent pomegranate. Since the Mughal times, the Kandahari anar has been traded in the markets of Delhi by Afghans. Kabuliwallas, as the tall Afghan traders were known, were popular and recognised by their turban and fair Pashtun features.

Ever since, stories around the fruit abound. Emperor Babar, when he came to India, would have it sent across from Afghanistan. British governors during the Raj did the same, getting trucks with the pomegranate to travel up to Delhi and Calcutta.

“But this changed during the war in Afghanistan and trade came to a complete halt,” said Yusuf Dawran, managing director of Afghan Business Center who is introducing the Kandahari anar again in Indian markets. “During the war, some traders conducted irregular trade by smuggling in a consignment or two, but regular established trade has been absent between the two countries.”

In 2013, the Afghan government and New Delhi decided to rebuild trade between the two nations – and the Kandahari anar became an instrument to achieve that. “Connoisseurs and Delhi’s old families know the flavours of the Kandahari anar,” said Dawran. “It has a great market here.”

Cradle of Taliban

Afghanistan is known as the land of pomegranates. Forty-eight leading cultivars of the fruit are grown there, mainly in Kandahar, Helmand, Farah, Herat, Balkh, Kapisa and Nangarhar provinces. But the world’s best pomegranate is produced in the desert region of Kandahar. Come October, the muted brown of Kandahar turns into lush green, with rows of pomegranate trees hanging full with the fruit.

The muted browns and greens have for long blended with shades of red. The cradle of Taliban, Kandahar has witnessed much bloodshed and lies at the heart of the poppy trade. During the Taliban’s reign and afterwards, the area of pomegranate production declined from 5,667 hectares (1996) to 2,500 hectares (2003). Farmers were handed out poppy seeds, farm equipment and fertiliser to promote poppy cultivation. A kilogram of dry opium fetched a Kandahar farmer $140, according to a report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In contrast, the same amount of pomegranate fetched about $2 in Kabul and less than 50 cents in rural centres.

After the Taliban were flushed out of power and security conditions bettered, the relatively peaceful environment allowed formers to thrive again in traditional agriculture. Help came from the Afghan government, which promoted exports of fruits. Assistance was also provided by the US Agency for International Development, which launched the $6.6 million Kandahar Orchard Project to offer credit to farmers to plant new pomegranate trees, particularly on former poppy land.

Hazards in the way

As a result of the many efforts, Kandahar now produces more than 30,000 tonnes of the finest pomegranate. But to export it, particularly to India, still remains a perilous task. Obstructing the path are Taliban splinter groups and the powerful truck mafia of Pakistan. The trade had, in fact, opened up only in 2010, when a new transit agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan allowed Afghan traders to export local agricultural produce to Indian markets through the Wagah border.

On average, 50 tonnes of pomegranate are brought daily from Kandahar to Delhi. The best among them, known as “A grade”, can weigh up to a kilogram, come packaged in elaborate boxes, and can sell for Rs 150 to Rs 200 a kilogram. There are plans to retail this variety through supermarkets under the brand name “Kandahari anar”. The non-A-grade variety are sold to wholesalers who then vend them to local sellers. Afghan Business Center sells these for Rs 70 a kilogram.

“A lot of people told us that Kandahari anar has always been available in India,” said Dawran. “In reality, it is the fruit from Nashik that is often passed off as Kandahari.”

Extended extortion racket

According to Dawran, the pomegranate trade has created a black economy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with $60 million to $80 million being pocketed illegally by the Pakistani traders who play a big role in the fruit’s export. Trucks carrying consignments of pomegranate from Kandahar are stopped at the many checkpoints controlled by militant groups, and for every vehicle to pass, up to PKR 50,000 has to be paid.

As the trucks cross the Afghan border into Pakistan’s North-West Frontier and then to Quetta in Balochistan, smugglers line up for their share. Only after their pockets are lined are the vehicles allowed to travel up to the Wagah border. Due to this multi-level extortion, it takes around seven days by road for the consignments to reach Delhi, reducing the fruit’s normal shelf life of 2-4 weeks.

Still, Dawran is hopeful that India’s market can generate billions of dollars worth of business for Afghan traders and strengthen Afghanistan’s economy. “India remains a strategic partner,” he said. “The two countries have had strong trade ties since the time of the Silk Route. For us, it is the best transit point for goods to be traded internationally in the markets of Europe and the Gulf.”

A taste of home

Vishal Chandra, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, says that while India can be a big market for the war-torn economy of Afghanistan, issues in the trade route will continue to persist for Afghans, unless the proposed alternative route from Iran’s Chabahar port is realised.

“India is helping Afghanistan in other ways,” said Chandra. “It has built a National Agricultural University in Kandahar and a cold storage system with a capacity of up to 5,000 tonnes of fruit.”

In 2013, Afghanistan earned nearly $17.5 million from pomegranate export. If trade relations between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan improve and the Chabahar port becomes functional by 2016, Dawran is confident that not just the Kandahari anar but Afghanistan’s other agricultural products will also reach Indian markets.

Meanwhile, the fruit has already brought happiness to a few. For the over 10,000 Afghans living in Delhi and other parts of India, the availability of the Kandahari anar is a small but important respite – a reminder of home.

Abdul Barak, a BCom student at Jamia Milia University, has fond memories of visiting Kandahar, an hour’s drive from his home in Lashkar Gah in Helmand, to savour its delicious fruit. “If you eat this pomegranate, you will understand why it is different: uska zaayka hi kuch aur hai (its flavour is incomparable),” he said. “I miss my country and I miss the bread. If I can get Kandahari anar in Delhi, it will bring me some part of home.”