Wheat exports: India's assurance to neighbours is a positive development for South Asia

India prioritizing neighbouring countries in its foreign policy objectives, particularly by assisting Sri Lanka and Afghanistan amid crises, shows its commitment to 'Neighbourhood First' policy, writes John Rozario for South Asia Monitor

John Rozario May 19, 2022
Wheat trucks at Wagah border (Photo: Dawn)

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, India's ban on commercial exports of wheat has reignited worldwide concerns about rising food prices that can exacerbate the problems of food-deficit countries.  The Indian High Commission in Dhaka has clarified that India's 'ban' on wheat exports has no bearing on shipments of wheat contracted for sale. Only commercial wheat exports from India have been restricted. 

The Indian directive will not preclude wheat from being exported to neighbours and other nations that may request it to assist their domestic food security measures, New Delhi has said, even reiterating it at the United Nations. 

Indian authorities have explained that the wheat export ban has been undertaken to ensure domestic food availability and minimize food price-related inflation while supporting the legitimate requirements of India's neighbours and other nations in need.

India clarifies 
B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, India's Commerce Secretary, has said that there was no wheat shortage in India and the decision was to keep domestic wheat and wheat flour prices under control. "We've left the window open for the sake of (our) neighbours," he said. “We've also left the door open for a significant number of vulnerable countries to make such requests if their governments do so,”  the Indian official clarified.

Wheat prices hit a new high on Monday after India opted to halt exports due to a heatwave that hampered output. As the European market opened, the price increased to 435 euros ($453) per tonne.

Since Russia's February invasion of agricultural powerhouse Ukraine, which previously accounted for 12 percent of global exports, global wheat prices have risen due to supply concerns.

After the hottest March on record, India, the world's second-largest wheat producer, announced a restriction on exports.  

In the case of Bangladesh, following the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, India became Dhaka's primary wheat exporter. The price of wheat in Bangladesh was already expensive. This move has driven costs much higher.

According to the website of India's commerce ministry, New Delhi exported roughly 6.6 million (66 lakh) tonnes of wheat in the first 11 months of the fiscal year 2021-22. Bangladesh was the final destination for 57 percent of this wheat.

Neighboring countries of India see a glimmer of hope in the Indian assurances amid the wheat export ban. Neighbourhood First policy, a key component of its foreign policy, emphasizes peaceful relations and collaborative synergetic co-development with its neighbours.  

India and South Asia 

The Modi administration recognizes the importance of cultivating and maintaining relationships with its neighbors, and the strategy aims to foster friendly and cooperative connections with its neighbours in a variety of fields.

Vaccine diplomacy has been viewed as a pragmatic response to the global epidemic. Indian diplomacy, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, resulted in the country being recognized internationally as a harbinger of hope and succour. 

Operation Ganga was conducted to rescue Indian nationals from war-torn Ukraine. Significantly, New Delhi also rescued citizens of several other countries besides Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. 

India's vital assistance to South Asian countries by prioritizing neighbouring countries in its pursuit of foreign policy objectives, particularly by offering assistance to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan during their crises, demonstrates New Delhi's commitment to its 'Neighbourhood First' policy. 

Indian objectives 

There are more reasons to support the Neighbourhood First policy. 

First, persistent interaction with neighbouring countries will aid in the creation of a friendly atmosphere in the region, which has long been a barrier to the region's stability, trust and progress. Stability will allow India to pursue its foreign policy objectives while also allowing other South Asian countries to flourish and prosper.  

Second, by providing essential assistance, India can gain economic and strategic depth in relation to China that has been making strategic inroads in the region.    

Third, for long-term cordiality and regional peace, people-to-people interactions and cultural affinities should not be ignored. 

(The author is a strategic and international affairs analyst and researcher. Views are personal. He can be reached at johnrojariojnu@gmail.com) 

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