By Sayed Sarwar and Hamid Shalizi
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan's plans to fly shipments from southern fruit growers to India have gone awry, leaving tons of grapes and melons to rot as officials scramble to add flights, while trading blame for the delays.
The problem illustrates the hurdles Afghanistan faces in rebuilding its strife-torn economy, a crucial step if it is to wean itself off billions of dollars in foreign aid annually.
Horticultural producers, who export nearly $360 million worth of goods each year, have long grappled with the challenges of transport in the mountainous nation. The flights offered them a way around frequent border closures by neighboring Pakistan.
But the system has not worked as promised, with just a handful of flights having carried goods to India, causing losses for some producers in Kandahar, 500 km (310 miles) southwest of the capital, Kabul.
"We packed some 40 tons of fruit, mainly melons and grapes, but weeks passed without flights," said Haji Saduddin, head of the region's Kandahar Fruit Company.
"We had to sell it for less than half price in the local market."
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this week ordered officials to coordinate more closely with the airlines to ensure every flight carried 80 to 100 tons of fruit, the presidential palace said in a statement, after he met business leaders on the issue.
Officials of the chamber of commerce in Kabul say they are trying to negotiate deals with at least one more Afghan airline, Kam Air, besides national carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines, in the effort to add more flights.
Since June 19, just one flight, carrying 60 tonnes of medicinal plants, has left Kandahar, Haji Nasrullah Zaheer, head of the city's chamber of commerce, told Reuters.
"It is fruit season in Kandahar, but the delicate fruit just rotted here due to lack of flights," he said.
Fruit producers had long pressed for more air cargo services but disjointed planning and a lack of infrastructure, such as facilities for cold storage, had proved a stumbling-block.
Leaders in Kabul and New Delhi had trumpeted the plans as a way to avoid Pakistan's strict limits on shipments between its neighbors, with which it occasionally has border disputes.
Afghan officials are trading blame over the rotten fruit.
Ariana Afghan Airlines, which was to have coordinated flights through a subcontractor, told farmers in Kandahar its aircraft were too busy taking people to Mecca for the annual Haj pilgrimage, Kandahar business official Zaheer said.
The problem occurred because a subcontractor had failed to provide a cargo aircraft, said Ariana President Mohammed Nader Omar, without identifying the company.
"It wasn't about flying people to Haj, but a lack of management," he told Reuters. "We are working to fix this."
The plans provide for the government to compensate traders for losses, said Khan Jan Alokozay, an official of Afghanistan's chamber of commerce, without naming a specific figure.
But for some, any compensation could be too little, too late.
"A number of people borrowed money and started fruit businesses, but now their investment is gone," said Saduddin, the fruit company head.
(Additional reporting by Aditi Shah in New Delhi; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)