External Affairs

The Amazing Indian Story Behind Herat’s Salma Dam

For Heratis, the completion of the dam, located in Chisti-e-Sharif district, had always seemed like an impossible dream.

The Salma dam lit up at night. Credit: Special arrangements

The Salma dam lit up at night. Credit: Special arrangement

New Delhi: For over ten years, the construction of the Salma dam has stretched the capacity of Indian diplomacy, administration and engineering to its limits, as New Delhi kept track of competing warlords on one side to maintain security, and the finance ministry’s beancounters on Raisina Hill.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got to push a red button together with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, opening the sluice gates and powering the turbines which will irrigate over 80,000 hectares of land and provide electricity to thousands of homes in the western Afghan province of Herat.

“Salma dam was a project that nobody thought would be finished – nobody. Not the Afghans, the Russians, and certainly not us,” an Indian diplomat who had been closely involved in the project, candidly told The Wire.

For Heratis too, the completion of the dam, located in Chesti-e-Sharif district, had always seemed like an impossible dream. “There were feasibility reports made for a dam going back to 1957, so the concept of one day having their own electricity generated was always there in background,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani inaugurate the Indian-funded Salma Dam in Herat, Afghanistan on Saturday. The dam has been constructed at a cost of about Rs 1400 crore. Credit: PTI/Kamal Kishore

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani inaugurate the Indian-funded Salma Dam in Herat, Afghanistan on Saturday. The dam has been constructed at a cost of about Rs 1400 crore. Credit: PTI/Kamal Kishore

Across every corner of Herat city, billboards of Afghan leaders – President Ghani, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, the water and energy minister Ali Ahmad Osmani – compete to take credit for the dam, which observers term as the first concrete achievement of the National Unity Government. The majority of the hoardings include Indian flags and photographs of Modi, next to exhortations of gratitude towards India – a fitting end to one of New Delhi’s most difficult foreign aid projects.

When India took up the gauntlet of building Salma dam 14 years ago, it had looked like a challenging but not impossible undertaking. For India, one of the largest producers of hydro power, it had seemed like a simple undertaking – a 42-megawatt hydroelectric dam is small by Indian standards – with the remote location being the only challenge.

“Remember, the first WAPCOS delegation went in December 2002. Everything was peaceful at that time. The Taliban had been defeated a year back. There was no sign yet that they would try to stage a comeback,” said the Indian diplomat, explaining why India committed to the dam project.

It was not the first time that the work had commenced on the Salma dam project. In the late 1970s, an Afghan firm got the job and had appointed the same small Indian public sector firm, WAPCOS.

The project never really had much of a chance. The communist regime of Barak Karmal and Hafizullah Amin took over in 1978, and within a year, Herat city became the centre of Cold War politics. A young Afghan army captain led a rebellion against the communist administration, in which over a dozen Soviet advisors and their families were killed. Herat was ‘liberated’ for a short while, but it led to a violent reprisal which left over 20,000 dead in a week – and became one of the drivers of the 1979 Soviet invasion.

In the armoured convoy evacuating Soviet personnel from Herat at the time were two WAPCOS engineers also making their escape. In an unusual twist, one of them apparently returned 30 years later in an official delegation to inspect Salma dam, when he narrated his brush with the start of the anti-Soviet jihad to an Indian diplomat.

He was not the only Indian to have apparently found his way back to the Salma dam. The former chairman of the Central Water Commission, R.C. Jha, was an assistant director in an office in Delhi, when he drew the design of some components of the dam “about 35-37 years ago”.

In the second half of 2014, Jha went to Afghanistan for the first time, as an independent director at WAPCOS, for some technical consultation at the Salma dam. “I am so happy that the dam is finally completed. But, I was really delighted to visit the site. Not least, I found that the design for the hoisting gate for the diversion tunnel had largely adhered to my design. A small part of what I did decades ago was still relevant,” the retired central water engineering service officer told The Wire.

With WAPCOS’S knowledge of the project, it was not surprising that India picked up the Salma dam as part of a garland of large development projects in Afghanistan designed for high impact in the initial optimistic years of the Karzai administration – from the Pul-i-Khumri transmission line, the parliament building and the Zaranj-Delaram road.

Cabinet approval of the project came in November 2004 with Rs 351.87 crore sanctioned. The contracts were awarded in 2005, with WAPCOS appointed as project manager, while a specially constituted firm, Salma Dam Joint Ventures was the contractor.

By January 2006, Indian engineers and workers reached the site – a wind-blown mountainous stretch on the Hari Rud river, littered with the rusting remnants of equipment previous contractors left behind 25 years ago.

“When we went for first time, all we saw on the site was heavy equipment, trucks… all abandoned and unusable. The few buildings like a workshop were completely destroyed by rockets,” an Indian engineer, who has been working on Salma dam project for last 10 years, told The Wire.

The remoteness of the location is striking. A 160-kilometre dirt road connects the site to Herat city, but most Indian workers hardly travelled on it due to its notorious reputation as a security hazard. In 2009, a senior WAPCOS official had a close shave from a kidnapping attempt on this road. Instead, they usually flew in and out by helicopter, courtesy of the Afghan military, which provided the service once a month.

There was no human habitation as far as the human eye could see. The nearest villages, mud-brick encampments on the riverside, were around 50 kilometres away.

Credit: @rajfortyseven/Twitter

Credit: @rajfortyseven/Twitter

The Indian workers brought with them the equipment needed to kick-start the project – excavators, concrete pumps, drilling machines. Seven Volvo tippers were purchased from Dubai and brought to Afghanistan via Iran.

But, they did not ship only inanimate objects from India. “In the early years, we even got a barber, a part-time one,” said one of the project engineers. Importing Indian cooks was a “necessity”, but eventually local Afghans were trained and became skilful purveyors of even south Indian dishes. “I had some of the best Indian food in Afghanistan at the project site. It became rather popular with visitors,” reminisced a diplomat.

A doctor was, however, too difficult to procure – despite best efforts. “We put out advertisements asking for a medical doctor. We never got suitable candidates, because of the location. So if we had a problem, the first aid kit was the main hope. If it was for something a bit more serious like a fracture, we went to a local Afghan who was basically a quack, but was good at setting right a twisted bone”.

The living conditions were, however, the least of the problem. Within a few months of the commencement of construction, it became clear that WAPCOS’s feasibility report was out of date.

Sources said that the firm had estimated that 30 lakh cubic metre of River Bed Material could be extracted till 10 kilometres upstream and downstream from the site. “In the end, we could dig up only about 11 lakh cubic metres. Just about one-third,” he said. “So what was the alternative? The site itself is mountainous, so break down the mountains”.

According to senior Indian officials, it was at that stage that alarm bells should have rung that the estimated cost of the project would be woefully inadequate. “But nobody raised any concerns then,” he said.

While blowing up mountains for rock quarry was perhaps the only solution to find enough construction material, it left work paralysed for one and half years – as India struggled to find a way to transport explosive material into Afghanistan.

Rusting machinery at the project site. Credit: Special arrangement

Rusting machinery at the project site. Credit: Special arrangement

“Iran refused to allow dynamite to be transported through their territory and asking Pakistan was out of the question,” he said.

It was Ismail Khan, the veteran mujahideen leader and Herat’s most powerful warlord, who brought back life into the still-born project. “It was Ismail Khan who helped to get us the dynamite through a local company from a central Asian country,” said the senior Indian diplomat.

Conveniently, Khan, who as a young Afghan army captain had led the Herat rebellion, was now ensconced as the minister of energy and water in the Karzai administration since 2005 and directly responsible for the Salma dam project.

His life story has mirrored his country’s destiny. From a soldier, Khan turned into a celebrated mujahideen, defended Herat against Taliban as its governor, spend three years in a Taliban jail, escaped and led the resistance alongside the Northern Alliance. Restored as governor, he later became a minister under Karzai. He was a vice presidential running mate for presidential candidate Abdul Sayyaf in 2014 and lost to Ashraf Ghani, with whom he has a testy relationship.

“Ismail Khan has been one of our strongest ally in completing the project. He is not typical mujhahideen, as he is a trained engineer, so he used to tell us that we haven’t posted enough men to finish all the work as scheduled. He told us that more than the electricity, it was the storage of water in the reservoir which was his dream,” said a senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official.

Khan’s remarks were a typical response in the province, a reflection of Herat’s complicated relationship with Iran, Indian diplomats learn quickly once they are posted at the consulate at Herat city. “It is the storage of water which is a matter of pride for Heratis. A way to show their sovereignty to Iran”.

Iran had been uneasy about the implications of the Salma dam project and the flow of water downstream, and even raised it as early as February 2005 with India.

“9. (C) Reflecting on the recent visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi, Singh stated that the Iranian Foreign Office and establishment are supportive of Karzai, but the “other lot,” meaning the mullahs, “was of two minds,” and supported his electoral opponents. Iran has also complained to the GOI about the Indian-sponsored Salma Dam in Afghanistan, fearing a reduction in water supplies downriver. In these cases, India told the Iranians to discuss their complaints with the Afghans, Singh stated.” [Wikileaks]

With India not wanting to get involved in the bilateral water dispute, Iran pushed Afghanistan to reach an understanding over riparian rights, but to no avail.

“During wide-ranging meetings in Iran April 10-12, Afghan Foreign Minister Spanta deflected Iranian pressure for an agreement on water rights surrounding the Harirud River and Salma Dam project, pressed Iran to stop supporting the National Front, and declined (again) an Iranian offer to conclude a security agreement. FM Spanta sought a delay in the forced return of one million refugees from Iran but received no commitments.…While Afghanistan welcomes Iran''s technical and economic assistance, growing Iranian influence over Afghan MPs, government officials, and the media are of increasing concern.” [Wikileaks]

A senior Iranian diplomat told The Wire recently that issue of water rights over the river is still very much alive. “Our concerns about the river flow due to the Salma dam persist. We have been keeping a watch on the project and need to have a serious talk with the Afghan side,” he said.

Meanwhile, Iran is a ubiquitous presence in the Herat province, where it is the biggest investor in development projects – from roads to power supply. “But Iran is blamed for being behind all things there. If any Indian official ask Herat authorities who is behind any particular incidents, the finger is always pointed at across the border,” said an Indian diplomat.

At frequent intervals, Afghan and international media report accusations from Herat security officials and politicians that Iran is trying to “sabotage” the Salma dam project.

Indian diplomats, however, remain sceptical about such blame-game. “We have seen no signs of Iran being involved in sabotaging our work. Iran has that much influence in Herat, that if it really wanted to stop the project, we would not have been able to build a one-feet high wall”.

Meanwhile, with the security situation deteriorating over the years, project engineers and supervisers had to become adept in keeping track of the fluid loyalties of local warlords. “The upstream part of site, which has the dam reservoir is the area to two local strongmen, Mullah Mustafa and Haji Sayed Wali, who are sometimes friends with each other, sometimes not. They are basically anti-government forces. We don’t see them as part of the Taliban. It was in the downstream section, which has the road to Herat that is under Taliban elements and particularly dangerous,” explained a project official.

The notorious local strongman, Mullah Mustafa, with one of the project's Afghan superviser. Credit: Special arrangement

The notorious local strongman, Mullah Mustafa, with one of the project’s Afghan superviser. Credit: Special arrangement

While ITBP personnel were posted to protect selective Indian assets in Afghanistan, they were not deployed at development projects sites, where they would have been too visible in a sensitive and volatile region.

Since Indian diplomats had to keep a safe distance from ‘anti-government’ rebels, it was left to the project managers, with the help of Afghan employees, to conduct outreach to the local commanders.

Even here, Indians found that their understanding of the ‘good guys’ was diametrically opposite to the Americans, who dropped in from time to time. A 2009 Wikileaks cable indicated that Mullah Mustafa was using the necessity of “peace” at the Salma dam as a bargaining chip to install his man as the district governor.

“…Governor Nuristani was critical of Afghan National Police (ANP) actions in response to these and other criminal activities and took credit for the recent release of individuals kidnapped in January, as well as the return of the body of an Indian citizen killed by Siyashwani’s supporters. The Governor also recounted efforts by strongman Mullah Mustafa from neighboring Ghor Province and others in the bordering Cheshte Sharif District of Herat Province to press him to replace the district governor in exchange for peace at the Salma dam site, a major Indian development project…” [Wikileaks]

The Americans had targeted Mullah Mustafa, bombed his location on multiple occasions, but he escaped every times. While Indian officials describe him as “powerful and ruthless”, he has been supportive to the project. “Once our driver got kidnapped on the Herat Chisti road by the Taliban. He got him released within two days”.

Mustafa is also close to Ismail Khan, who had once helped to get him out of American custody, said an official.

Interestingly, it was not Mustafa, but the dam’s first security commander against whom WAPCOS had complained back home. Syed Gulbuddin Khan or Gullu Khan kept an eye not just on the project, but was also heavily involved in a war of supremacy again Mullah Mustafa – which kept away lot of his guards and brought the intensity of fighting to the site.

A 2009 letter written by WAPCOS officials to the central government talked of living under “constant fear”, with the sound of gunshots being a constant soundtrack. The presidential election had thinned out the security detail for deployment elsewhere, which fueled further anxiety.

The stream of missives from project engineers to the MEA and water resources ministry complaining about the security has remained steady, with the panic button pressed as the fighting intensified in the periphery.

“Last year, we got emails at night from the site officials instructing us what to tell their families in case they don’t make it alive,” said a ministry official. The Taliban had attacked checkpoints near the WAPCOS staff colony, “but these attacks were meant to register their presence, never a real threat to our engineers or the project.”

Indian officials asserted that there was never a direct threat to the project over the last decade, but there had been many incidents in the vicinity. In September 2014, the security convoy for the transmission line project was attacked and 12 people were killed. Then, there was a green-on-green attack, when a Afghan policeman shot dead four colleagues. It is estimated that around 50 Afghan security personnel may have been killed while on duty around the project.

“For security, we had around 200 persons spread out over 10 kilometres. If the Taliban really wanted to attack, they could have,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mustafa and Gullu Khan kept on fighting with each other – a proxy for the rivalry of their mentors, Ismail Khan and his chief rival, Maulvi Khudaidad respectively.

Outreach to the nearby villages became an essential survival tool. “To survive in such place, we had to become a part of them by taking care of them. For the young, we helped in school, provided playgrounds, held football tournament, while for the adults, we repaired mosques and maidans for praying [sic],” said a project official. The annual inter-village football tournament was the first time that the youngsters were introduced to the game, but they soon became proficient and learned to follow international clubs.

The Chisti shrine. Credit: Special Arrangements

The Chisti shrine. Credit: Special arrangement

Asked how they found time for the community outreach amidst their schedule, he pointed out, “We had only site work. Besides, there was no entertainment, no newspapers, no visits, no sightseeing. So, we did have a lot of time on hand for such work.”

Besides the dam, the Chist-i-Sharif had a more enduring link with India as the origin of the Chisti order of Sufism. The most famous Sufi saint in the subcontinent, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, whose shrine in Ajmer is visited by lakhs of devotes, was a follower of this order. His uncle, Khwaja Qutubddin Maudood Chisti has a beautiful blue-hued shrine, with two tall minarets.

“We repaired on the minarets as it was nearly run-down and could have fallen anyday,” said a project official. It was taken up a CSR initiative by the dam officials, as Indian government could not pay for a project which had religious connotations. “Actually, the Afghans pointed out this fine print in the guidelines for our small development projects, so we got the shrine repaired through another way,” said a senior MEA official.

As Indian workers coped with the security situation, they also had to deal with rising costs, coupled with uncertain money flow from India as MEA’s development aid budget was stretched thin as the finance ministry refused to increase allocation.

“There were instances of Afghans dousing themselves with kerosene and threatening to immolate themselves if money was not issued. They thought Indian government was sponsoring the project, so they assumed Indian consulate was the right location for a self-immolation,” said an Indian diplomat.

Official records recount how work came to a “complete standstill” in the last two months of 2013-14, with pending bills of Rs 77 crore. This was mainly because of  the delay of three years in giving approval to the revised cost.

With the economy going through a downturn, austerity was the flavour, with North Block not listening to letters from MEA calling for increasing the budget for foreign projects committed at the “highest level”.

For Indian engineers, 2014 was the turning point when it seemed that the project will finally see the light of the day. The filling of the reservoir in August 2015 led to a change in nomenclature in the project to “Afghanistan-India friendship dam”. Street parties sprung up in Herat city, with Indian flags being decorated across billboards.

Even as expenditure increased exponentially, the deadlines continued to be pushed, ever further away. From December 2008, the second deadline was December 2010, followed by January 2015, July 2015 and finally, June 2016.

India’s final tally was Rs 1775.69 crore – an increase of over 400% from the original estimate.

With the project finally over, it is the right time for a detailed study of its difficult implementation. As India moves to enhance its development aid portfolio from Africa to the Pacific Islands, lessons must be learnt from the Salma Dam project to avoid huge cost overruns and inordinate delays – a necessary step to make its development diplomacy an effective instrument.

  • Tunku Varadarajan

    Excellent, exhaustively reported piece. We need more granular coverage of India’s involvement in Afghanistan. You don’t get that from the Western press, which finds India’s presence there mildly distasteful/disconcerting. India has a vibrant, independent media, not without resources and official contacts: make the most of it. Embed with engineering crews, talk to consulate staff…the works. I want to know what India is doing there, the A-Z of its involvement…

  • Anandu

    Excellent article. Very informative. Looking forward to such pieces.