One of India’s showpiece projects in Afghanistan is in trouble mainly due to procrastination on the part of New Delhi. Unable to approve the revised cost for the Salma Dam, South Block faces the risk of a deteriorating security situation which might worsen after the bulk of the NATO forces withdraws from the war-ravaged country in 2014.

What is galling to those involved in the project is the leisurely approach of the bureaucracy here to providing additional financing. This is in sharp contrast to the risk taken by engineers to keep the project going. They preferred to brave the uncertainties of travelling by road mined by the Taliban after the Afghan government twice denied helicopters to take them to the site.

Work slows down

A high-level meeting of the country’s security managers was told that construction activity had slowed down and was on the verge of “complete stoppage because the Afghan contractors had lost complete faith in the revival of the project and the subcontractors were refusing to supply material on credit to the contractors.”

The Salma Dam is one the two big projects India undertook in Afghanistan, the other being the Parliament building. The dam was to have been completed by 2010 but the timeline has been pushed back by two years. This time frame has caused perturbation in South Block because even before the NATO withdrawal, the area around the dam site in western Afghanistan has begun witnessing frequent gunbattles between the project security detail and the Taliban.

In fact, what worries officials is that hostility to the project, evident since 2009, could spiral out of control when the NATO forces leave the country. The security situation began deteriorating three years ago with kidnappings taking place in the area. From last year, the Taliban, besides engaging the project’s security team in gunbattles, has been laying mines on the dilapidated 160-km access road to the site.

Following intelligence inputs, the Indian consulate in Herat fears that the dam, a symbol of benign Indian aid, is also in the cross-sights of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, said senior officials privy to the meeting which took stock of the progress of the project.

Sources said the files have been shuttling between the Ministries of External Affairs and Finance since December last. While the Afghan contractors are on the verge of pulling out, Indian companies such as BHEL have been waiting since September last for the cost revision proposal to be approved.

Cost escalation

“Further delay may result in demobilisation of the existing Afghan infrastructure and it, in turn, may lead to security problems,” officials told the project review meeting. The cost of the project has escalated from Rs. 350 crore to over Rs. 800 crore.

The dam has the potential to irrigate 75,000 hectares and generate 42 MW of electricity.

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