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For First Time in Taliban Era, Indian Technicians Return to Inspect $265 Million Dam in Afghanistan

The Wire has learned that a four-member team from the Indian public sector company Wapcos is currently visiting Salma Dam, their hydroelectric project built on the Harirud River in a remote part of north-western Afghanistan.
The flag of the Afghan republic seems to have been defaced on the signboard for the Salma Dam. Photo: Special arrangement

New Delhi: For the first time since the Afghan Republic fell to the Taliban, India is checking in on the $265 million dam that it built in Afghanistan eight years ago.

The Salma dam, officially known as India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam, was New Delhi’s contribution to a global effort aimed at reconstructing Afghanistan and staving off insurgency.

With the country having fallen into the hands of the Taliban, India had the choice of leaving it to the militant group or helping to maintain it. The Indian government has chosen the latter, sending a four-member team to the hydropower project, a sign of India’s growing engagement with the Taliban.

The Wire has learned that a four-member team from the Indian public sector company Wapcos is currently visiting Salma Dam, their hydroelectric project built on the Harirud River in a remote part of north-western Afghanistan.

The team journeyed to Kabul via the weekly scheduled flight on Wednesday, proceeding to Herat city next day. They took a helicopter ride to the dam site, where they stayed for three days before embarking on their return trip. Local security officials and representatives from the Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water accompanied them throughout their visit.

The weathered name board at the dam site mirrored the evolving political landscape in Afghanistan. Set against a blue backdrop, the inscription “Afghan India Friendship Dam” remained prominently displayed, while several other lines had gradually faded. On top, the colours of the Indian flag remained vibrant, accompanied by the symbol of entwined hands. But the tricolour flag of the Afghan republic along the same line seemed to have been deliberately defaced.

It is understood that the Taliban government has made repeated requests to Indian authorities for the dispatch of a technical team to address longstanding issues at Salma Dam. However, responding to these appeals has been delayed amid diplomatic complexities. This is likely the first visit by any Indian official delegation to Afghanistan related to infrastructure projects since 2021.

The Indian technical team at Salma Dam. Photo: Special arrangement

Just like the rest of the international community, India does not officially recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, since Indian diplomats returned to Kabul in 2022, there has been a gradual build-up of engagement with the Taliban, despite the stationed diplomats being formally designated as a technical team focusing on humanitarian assistance. The Taliban has also turned towards regional countries as prospects of formal diplomatic recognition from the UN are dim due to the educational restrictions on women and girls.

Also read: The Amazing Indian Story Behind Herat’s Salma Dam

During Afghanistan’s two decade-long republic era, India’s active presence in the country was anchored on its development assistance totalling over $2 billion. In that sphere, Salma Dam, later renamed the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam, has a premier position along with the Afghan parliament building and Zaranj Delaram highway project.

The latest view from top of the dam towards the power house and the river. Photo: Special arrangement

While the Ministry of External Affairs appointed state-run Wapcos to execute the project, the state firm contracted the construction to a joint venture of two private firms, SSJV and Angelique limited.

Inaugurated jointly by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in June 2016, it is the first major water infrastructure project in modern Afghanistan in the last 50 years. The project was also diplomatically sensitive as Iran had objected to its construction over concerns that water flow in the river that crossed over into Iranian territory would reduce.

For a decade, amidst the challenges posed by precarious security conditions and logistical intricacies, the project endured, demanding a ballooning expenditure of Rs 1775.69 crore ($265 million in 2016 exchange rate) to reach completion.

Linked to Herat city by a 165-kilometre earthen road, traversable only under escort of a large convoy of security personnel, the journey consumed seven to eight arduous hours. However, as the security landscape progressively deteriorated in the project’s final years, all ground travel was abruptly barred, compelling Indian workers at the site to rely solely on helicopters for transportation.

After its commissioning, the dam was handed over to Afghan engineers and technicians who had been trained in India. Over the next few years, teams from Wapcos made occasional visits to the dam for inspections to address initial operational challenges. Meanwhile, in India, the main contractor sued Wapcos for non-payment of dues of over hundreds of crores in a case that has to be still resolved.

As the Taliban started to relentlessly press their military blitzkrieg in 2021, the fighting became increasingly closer to the site. In July 2021, Taliban entered Chisti Sharif, the nearest town to the dam, and damaged the complex of rooms that Wapcos had built for staff during the construction phase.

On August 13, the local Taliban commander entered the dam complex after the soldiers surrendered following the Friday prayers. Soon, the white and black Taliban flag fluttered over the dam.

Two days after, President Ghani and his aides fled to Uzbekistan, allowing the Taliban to seize control of Kabul and the entire country.

Also read: Surrounded by Taliban, India-Built Salma Dam’s Future is Uncertain

Since many of the Afghan engineers had migrated abroad in those uncertain days, the challenge in the new Taliban era was to find trained manpower to operate the hydropower project. In fact, the attrition had begun months prior to the Taliban’s assumption of power, as salary payments dwindled owing to the Afghan government’s revenue constraints.

A 2022 photo showing the damaged Wapcos accommodation in Chisti Sharif. Photo: Special arrangement

The technical team from Wapcos has gone with a list of items that needed to be assessed. “The SCADA system, which is the centralised software for controlling the dam, has not been working for years. So that is on the agenda for inspection,”  explained a source, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Similarly, the automatic mechanism for opening and shutting the irrigation sluice gates have been out of action. Besides, several instruments were also on the check list.

After their three-day stay, the team, which includes specialists in geology, software and electrical systems, will return to Kabul for talks with Afghan ministry officials. “This is the best time to inspect the dam as the water level is at its lowest as it is winter,” said the informed source.

During their stay at the dam, the Indian officials lived in the camp accommodation constructed by another Indian public sector company, BHEL for their technicians during construction, as the Wapcos quarters remain in a bombed out condition – a testimony to the tumultuous history that Salma dam has weathered.

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