Festooned with giant billboards of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian flags, a city that once served as capital to medieval warlords — from the Sultan of Ghazni to Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Durrani — is preparing to give an Emperor’s welcome to the first ever head of government to visit. And to signal its gratitude for a gift that residents believe will help restore the city to greatness.
Modi is scheduled to visit Herat on Saturday to inaugurate the Salma Dam. At over $275 million, the most expensive of India’s infrastructure projects in the region, it is expected to generate 42 MW of electricity for the rapidly growing city of 435,000 and irrigate some 75,000 hectares.
Large crowds of young people linked to Herat’s long-standing political patriarch, Ismail Khan, prepared for the Prime Minister’s arrival with drums and dancing tonight.
Herat, a city of broad avenues and new construction fuelled by vibrant transit trade with Iran and Turkmenistan, is considered one of Afghanistan’s few success stories. The dam, the Afghan government hopes, will lay foundations for it to emerge as a centre of industry and agriculture.
The Salma Dam is the most ambitious in a series of Indian infrastructure projects meant to help rebuild the war-torn country, which include the $135-million Route 606 highway from Delaram to Zaranj, the $42-million power transmission line from Pul-i-Khumri to Kabul, and the $90-million building that houses the country’s Parliament.
“This dam will be standing when no one present at its inauguration is still alive”, said Vivek Katju who, as India’s first ambassador to the new Afghan republic born after 9/11, played a key role in negotiating the project.
Estimated to cost a relatively modest $75 million when work began, the dam was to have been completed in 2012. In January 2013, though, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government approved the revision of the cost to $273.3 million and extended the schedule to December 2014.
The Government’s Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) says work was hit because of the extraordinary difficulties of transporting heavy industrial goods to the project site along the 160-km dirt road from Herat to the dam site near Chisht-i-Sharif, with everything from cement to steel having to be imported from Iran and Central Asia.
Indian project staff had to be flown to the project site by helicopter after January 2011 because of security threats from Taliban units operating along the road.
Taliban terrorists killed Chisht-i-Sharif Abdulqudus Qayam, a key advocate of the dam, in 2010 in what many saw as linked to efforts to gain protection money from construction-related contracts.
Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, also blamed the Taliban for a March 2013 attempt to blow up the Salma Dam with 1,300 kg of explosives.
However, at least some experts believe the slow pace of work on the dam calls for introspection. “I don’t mean to rain on the parade”, says Rakesh Sood, who succeeded Katju as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, “as India becomes engaged in strategic projects across the world, it’s going to become ever more important to get a grip on these cost and time overruns, or we’re going to get a bad reputation”.
For Afghanistan’s government, though, the dam’s inauguration is one of few pieces of good news in the midst of relentless violence that has seen the collapse of economic projects key to the country’s future. This week, Taliban attacks claimed over a dozen lives targeting bus passengers near Kunduz, believed to have been carried out on the orders of the organisation’s new chief, Haibatullah Akhund.
In Kandahar, a long-awaited United States-funded dam project has been stalled for years because of persistent attacks on key logistics routes. The Kajaki dam’s third turbine, set to have been inaugurated last year, was pushed off schedule. The turbine had to brought in under escort from British troops after the contractor responsible for the task pulled out citing security threats. Last year, the Afghan government-run power firm warned that the Taliban controlled one-third of the electricity from the Kajaki plant’s two existing turbines and were taxing residents for it.