Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Salma Dam –Message & Significance

By Shakti Sinha

The last of India’s four flagship projects—the Afghan-India Friendship Dam at Salma—was formally inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi and President Ashraf Ghani on June 4th. Since it was considered unsafe for the two leaders to jointly visit the site, the inauguration was done electronically from Herat, the primary beneficiary of the project. The dam would generate 42 MW of power and help irrigate 75,000 hectares of land. In fact development in Herat and role of Herati leaders played an important role in the project. For Indians, the location of the dam has an emotional tug. It is located at Chiste Sharif, from where the Chisti order of Sufis originated.

The other major projects India has delivered are the 213 km long Zaranj-Delaram Highway that connects Southeast Iran to Afghanistan’s Ring road, the 220Kv line from Chimtala to Kabul (part of the Northern Power System, NPS) and the parliament building, which PM Modi inaugurated on 25th December 2015. Two of the projects (Salma Dam and the Zaranj-Delaram Highway) have been built in the face of extremely hostile security environment, while the stringing of the NPS line over the Hindu Kush was an extremely hazardous and technically challenging project. The number of Afghan security-men who died defending the dam and highway projects runs to almost 100; India, too, lost a few to terrorist acts. The success of NPS, which was a joint effort along with USAID, German government aid agency GTZ, World Bank and the Asian Development Bank has changed the quality of like of millions of Afghans in Kabul and areas further north. And with the expected commissioning of an upgraded port at Chahbahar linked to the Afghan border, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway would not only help reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Karachi, it could potentially facilitate economic resurgence of western and southern Afghanistan.

The vicissitudes of the Salma Dam project brings out in full the range of domestic and external actors operating in Afghanistan. While all these factors may not be in operation in different parts of Afghanistan, it still holds important lessons for India, looking ahead.

The dam is located on the Hari Rud, a west flowing river that originates in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan and flows in to Iran. The two countries, Afghanistan and Iran, share another important river, the Helmand, on which there is a dam (Kajaki) that the US built in the 1950s but which needs large-scale overhauling and upgradation. Iran, being the more developed economy and State, has utilised these riverine resources far more extensively though Afghanistan is the upper riparian in both cases. The two countries do not have a water-sharing agreement that does make Iran quite apprehensive about any riverine project upstream.

Afghanistan conceived of this project in the late 1950s though it was only two decades later that orders were first placed for the construction of the dam. The bloody coup of 1978 that overthrew President Daoud, and the persistent internecine struggles with the ruling Afghanistan communist party and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) that led to the Soviet invasion (December 1979) and the resultant jihad meant that nothing could be done for decades though the Indian Public Sector enterprise WAPCOS did start some work in 1988. It was only in 2002 when President Karzai asked for India’s assistance that things began to move, but rather slowly. WAPCOS obtained cabinet approval for Rs 351 crores (about US $80 million) in November 2004 and awarded the work to the Joint venture undertaking in mid-2005.

The initial hiccups were mostly technical but soon security and strategic factors could be seen at work. Since using Karachi port was not an option, all material had to be shipped from India and Dubai via Bandar Abbas, then 1500 kms to Herat and further 160 kms east by ‘katcha’ road to the dam site. Problems arose when the need to ship explosives was blocked by Iran. After 2006, the security situation on the Herat–Chiste Sharif deteriorated and movement to and from the Dam site to Herat became perilous. Iran’s role suddenly came under scrutiny, and the Herat administration including police and intelligence sources pointed to the former’s role in sabotaging the project. Though never proved, there were enough circumstantial evidence pointing to this.

First, Iran‘s relations with the USA had deteriorated even though at the beginning of the US-led intervention, Iran had gone along with the US. Though their long-term goals were not in consonance, Iran and the resurgent Taliban were tactically on one page against the US-led Afghan stabilisation efforts; the Taliban had dropped its anti-Shia plank after its defeat and was open to taking help just to bog the US down. Second, Iran’s nervousness about Afghanistan’s efforts to use its riverine resources became apparent. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks makes this clear, with the Iranians even taking this up with New Delhi, only to be politely rebuffed. India was clear that it was for Iran and Afghanistan to sort out these bilaterally. Third, Iran was the major supplier of electric power to Herat, with even the distribution billing done in Mashhad. Salma Dam, once completed, would end this lucrative business.

Another factor, this time domestic, worked against the project. Ismail Khan, popularly known as the Amir of Herat, was a strong backer of this project. As a former artillery officer of the Afghan army, he had rebelled against the Soviet-led government and became a renowned jihadi leader. Pre-Taliban, he was the Governor of Herat province for three years and was instrumental in improving the city through investments in infrastructure and in upholding public order. Initially, Governor of Herat after the Taliban was overthrown, Karzai moved him to Kabul as Minister for Energy and Water, where he pushed both NPS and Salma dam projects. His subsequent fall-out with Karzai and political isolation meant that the law and order situation in Herat and the surrounding areas deteriorated affecting Salma Dam unduly.

The dam missed many deadlines with WAPCOS unable to overcome the many challenges including financial; the dam also seems to have fallen off Delhi’s radar and it was only in late 2013 that revised estimates were approved (ultimately the dam costs Rs 1775 crores or almost US $290 million, more than three times what was originally conceived). The change of government in May 2014 meant that all pending projects started getting rigorously monitored and were brought back on track—these included external ones like the two pending projects in Afghanistan, the Parliament building and Salma Dam.

The Afghan people’s strong desire for economic development and the high regard India is held in was evident when in August 2015 the first turbine of the dam was installed and tested. There was public jubilation and elation, with people coming on the roads; a human chain was formed that carried a 100 metre long Indian flag. The Afghanistan government accepted the demands of the public to name the dam as the Afghan India Friendship Dam.

Three important lessons from the Salma dam project that would serve India’s strategic and diplomatic initiatives need to be fleshed out. One, India’s project management and monitoring skills need to be professionalised. The very substantial cost and time overrun cannot be justified in terms of deterioration of security conditions alone. India’s interests are not well served when projects announced lag for years with no sign of completion; in the context of Afghanistan where India is looked upon as a reliable friend and a model to be followed, it is unforgivable. The usual reasons, viz., inadequate project design preparation, unrealistic costs, technical incompetence and lack of adequate budgetary provisions is not only deeply embarrassing but politically negates all the good done by PM’s vigorous diplomatic initiatives. The Kaladan multi-modal transport project in Myanmar suffers from all these ills and provides proof to the Myanmarese that while the Chinese projects deliver on time; those of India apparently do not. This must be reversed including by providing for container facilities without which the project would be a non-starter. Similarly, the PM’s success in bringing to a closure the decade-long negotiations over Chahbahar, which has the potential to make India an important economic partner of Central Asia, would be tested on India’s ability to deliver on the 950 km rail project from Chahbahar to the Afghan border. The different ministries must get their act together to ensure this.

Two, and partly linked to the first, since India is increasingly using development partnership as an instrument of strategic consideration, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and respective Indian embassies where such projects are being implemented should have development professionals in their ranks e.g., the embassies at Kabul and Kathmandu run a large number of micro community projects without necessarily having the ability to assess, implement, monitor or evaluate such projects. Similarly, with the shift from directly funding development projects to financing those using lines of credits (LOCs), MEA and concerned embassies should have staff capable of handling major project implementation including international procurement. The Prime Minister’s vision and efforts deserve nothing less.

Three, Indian missions on the ground be better tuned to ground realities. While none could have predicted the swift deterioration of US-Iran relations in the Afghan context, India should have been nimble enough to establish relations with local commanders who were key to local security conditions; subsequently it was with their ‘cooperation’ that the project took off. Excessive reliance on, and extremely close identification with, the central government in Kabul meant that local and regional actors and conditions did not get the priority they deserved. In these days of soft power, goodwill generated outside formal circles of power should not be ignored, as the role of the Heratis in the naming of the dam showed. But are our missions up to it?

The Afghan India Friendship Dam at Salma is a powerful symbol of development cooperation between Afghanistan and India whose effects have already impinged on strategic positioning. It is symptomatic of India’s commitments to work in difficult environment while showing up India’s shortcomings, which need immediate rectification. The system must respond vigorously to the Prime Minister’s dynamic leadership and his unprecedented personal investment in securing India’s place in the comity of nations. Such an opportunity does not arise very often.

(The author is former Jt. Secretary PMO, Principal Secretary Finance, Power & Planning, Govt. of Delhi, former Chief Secretary Andaman & Nicobar, Advisor to Govt. of Afghanistan & Member Advisory Council, SPMRF)