Khari Baoli dry fruit market has centuries-old ties with Kabul
Surjeet Singh, a wholesale dry fruits trader, is watching the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan with great concern.
“My business is completely dependent on Afghanistan; almost everything here is imported from there, ” says Singh, pointing to a range of dry fruits -- pistachio, walnuts, raisins, figs and almonds -- neatly displayed in small containers inside his shop in Katra Ishwar Bhawan, a maze of narrow, dimly lit pathways with hundreds of dry fruit wholesalers, in Khari Baoli in old Delhi. “No market in the country has deeper and older ties with Afghanistan than this market.”
Afghanistan has been driving the dry fruit business in Khari Baoli, which is India’s biggest dry fruit market and home to some of the oldest dry fruit importers in the country. India’s imports from Afghanistan were pegged at about ₹3,700 crore in 2020-21, with fruits and nuts accounting for more than ₹2,300 crore, according to the Union ministry of commerce’s trade database. Some estimates suggest that up to 85% of India’s dry fruits come from Afghanistan, and the hundreds of traders and importers in Khari Baoli, like Singh, import the bulk of it.
Since the Mughal period, Khari Baoli in Chandni Chowk has been a key commercial centre, attracting dry fruit traders and merchants from all corners of the country and abroad. The Pathan traders, who travelled in caravans, carrying carpets and dry fruit, formed trade networks in the 18th century that spanned from Afghanistan to Delhi and beyond. “They sold their goods in Chandni Chowk at the open adat shops (commission shops) of local traders,” says Lalit Kumar Gupta, former general secretary, Kirana Committee Delhi, an association of dry fruit and spice traders in Khari Baoli. An engraved stone on the wall of its first-floor office in the crowded market says it was formed in 1906, which makes it the oldest traders association in Chandni Chowk. The Pathans, who have historically been engaged in the dry fruit business in Afghanistan, continues to rule the dry fruit trade with India.
After Partition, many big dry fruit traders in Peshawar and Quetta — the other two major centres of the dry fruit business in undivided India — who had been doing business with traders in Afghanistan, shifted to Khari Baoli, deepening and widening the walled city market’s business ties with Afghanistan.
In 1952, these traders from Peshawar formed the Indo-Afghan Chambers of Commerce, which today has over 250 members, including some of the oldest and biggest dry fruit importers in the market. “The idea behind it was to promote business between the two countries. When it was formed, it had traders from both India and Afghanistan, ” says Kanwarjit Bajaj , 79, president, Indo- Afghan Chambers of Commerce and owner of Tulsi Nuts and Dry Fruits brand, one of India’s biggest dry fruit importers and exporters.
A first-of-its-kind business body aimed at furthering trade ties between the two countries, the Indo- Afghan Chambers of Commerce was registered in Katra Ishwar Bhawan, in Khari Baoli, where it continues to have its office.
“Many dry fruit traders here had their office in Kabul. Like most others we shut our office in the early 1990s because of the worsening security situation in that country,” says SM Wadhwa, who runs Hind International Company, another major dry fruit importer in the market.
The dry fruit trade with Afghanistan was disrupted during the previous Taliban regime between 1996 to 2001. In 2003, India and Afghanistan signed a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) under which India allowed substantial duty concessions, ranging from 50% to 100%, to certain categories of Afghan dry fruits. Trade picked up again in 2005 and has since been growing steadily.
Many Khari Baoli traders again began to travel to Afghanistan, and about 10 years ago, more and more Afghan traders began coming to Khari Baoli, with some even renting houses in nearby areas for a long stay. “They started coming because many of them felt they were not getting a good deal here in terms of prices, and receiving timely payments,” says a local trader, who does not wish to be named.
“Many Afghan traders want to set up their own shops and offices, but as of now, they bring the dry fruit samples and fix the price, following which local traders import their dry fruit. The Afghan traders stay in the market till the consignment is sold and they receive the payment,” says Kapil Gulati, who runs a firm called Kandhar Trading.
It is afternoon and he is busy taking stock of a consignment of figs that has just arrived from Afghanistan. All the shops in the street as elsewhere in the market are lit by LED lights as the market’s congested streets hardly receive any sunlight.
“This is peak season, the time when we receive the fresh crop of dry fruits from Afghanistan. After the current crisis in the country, the biggest problem is the collapse of banking services due to which we can’t do the financial transactions with traders there. Also we are unable to carry out the necessary paperwork as many officials in the Afghan government are still not working,” says Gulati. “Some traders from Afghanistan, who were in the market for business, have got stuck in Delhi after the Taliban took over the country.”
Gulati says his father named the firm Kandhar Trading, a tribute to Afghanistan’s Kandahar, because of his close business ties in the city.
In fact, Gulati’s is not the only firm named after Afghanistan or an Afghan city, there are several others with names like Afghan Store, Kabul di Hatti, among others. “We named it Kabul di Hatti as my family has roots in that city, ” says Pawandeep Singh, who runs a dry fruit retail shop Khari Baoli.
Interestingly, many local traders in the market, having worked with Afghan traders for decades, can speak Pashto.
Most local traders say one of the reasons why the crisis in Afghanistan has not had an impact on business, except for a slight rise of prices on some dry fruits, so far is that now, a lot of dry fruits is coming from countries such as the US, Chile and Peru, among others. Today, Indian dry fruits imports from Afghanistan include Mamra and Gurbandi almonds, black raisins, apricots, pistachio, and piquant spices such as asafoetida.
“The US has overtaken Afghanistan as far as almonds are concerned, but for everything else, the market is still dependent on Afghanistan. No country can match the wide dry fruit variety it offers. So Afghanistan continues to be as important to our market as ever,” says Wadhwa.