Afghanistan’s Hazara minority has promised demonstrations and public sector strikes if the government does not rout an electric power line project through the Hazara homeland of central Afghanistan as was originally planned.
The Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity power line, which would connect South and Central Asia via Afghanistan, was originally set to pass through the Bamyan province of central Afghanistan, where most residents are Hazara. The project would provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, as well as the attendant economic benefits of such a project.
But the plan has changed, reportedly on the insistence of investors, to build the project through the glacial heights of Salang Pass in the neighboring Parwan and Baghlan provinces.
The Second Afghan Vice President Sarwar Danish and the Second Deputy for Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammad Mohaqiq, themselves ethnic Hazaras, are insisting the TUTAP project be built in Bamyan.
The project is estimated to cost more than one billion dollars and will carry 500 kilovolts of power.
"Relocating the electricity project away from the central regions means a clear discrimination against certain people,” Mohaqiq said. “This means that the president and his administration are acting against particular people and it would mark the end of our cooperation.”
Karim Khalili, senior Hazara leader and second deputy to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is also adamant that Kabul consider reverting the route back to Bamyan.
“I would like to emphasize that the demands of the people have no ethnic or religious motives. These protests are about a big economic benefit for Afghanistan,” said Khalili. “I told the president that senior economic experts should gather to assess the TUTAP from different angles to determine which route is more beneficial for Afghanistan.”
The predominantly Shiite Hazaras claim to have historically faced discrimination in Sunni dominated Afghanistan. The TUTAP route controversy now appears to be providing a rallying point.
Hazara leaders point to a 2013 feasibility study by the German company Fichtner which claimed that the Bamyan route would avoid the narrow roads and other obstacles along the mountainous Salang Pass, and would better secure the power supply for Kabul and southern Afghanistan.
Officials from the Afghan Energy Ministry and its electricity subsidiary Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) say that a more recent, revised Fitchner report which has not yet been made public found Salang Pass north of Kabul to be a better alternative to Bamyan.
Wahidullah Tawhidi, a spokesman for DABS, says that the Salang route is nearly 80 kilometers shorter compared to Bamyan.
“We will save more than $400,000 on every kilometer,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We would also need to build a new road in Bamyan, so a power line through this region would delay the entire project for 28 months.”
Last week Afghanistan’s Minister for Energy and Water Ali Ahmad Osmani told journalists that the Salang route was chosen at the request of the TUTAP project investors, and the route is now final.
"The Asian Development Bank and Japanese investors requested the TUTAP route be finalized by the end of April, otherwise we might have faced funding problems,” Osmani said.
Officials from the Afghan Energy Ministry say that if the project goes through Bamyan, scores of Afghan provinces such as Panjshir, Kapisa, Paktia, and Paktika will be deprived of electricity. The ministry says if the route is changed back to Bamyan, the province would be provided with 300 megawatts of power, well above the 30 megawatts they claim it currently needs.
But Hazara leaders are not convinced. Tahir Zohair, the governor of Bamyan, says that if the project is not routed through the region, residents of central Afghanistan will have to wait for another eight years to get electricity.
“According to the master plan of the Afghan Energy Ministry, Bamyan and central Afghanistan in general are not part of the electricity delivery program until 2024,” he said. “If TUTAP could pass through Bamyan, the people would have electricity well ahead of the planned timeline.”
At a rally in Kabul on May 9, demonstrators called on the government to reroute the project through Bamyan.
"We will use every civil means to pressure the government to meet our demands,” Hazara lawmaker Ahmad Behzad said. “This will include mass resignations from the government and protests inside and outside of Afghanistan.”