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Held up: Bronze-domed gift to Afghanistan

- Security & manpower issues push parliament completion deadline to 2014

New Delhi, June 16: Fresh delays have pushed India into a race against time to hand over its most symbolically loaded gift — a new, bronze-domed parliament building — to Afghanistan ahead of key transitions in the strategically critical nation in 2014.

India has pushed back the completion of the Rs 710-crore parliament complex from its committed deadline of December 2013 to at least March 2014, top government and private officials associated with the project said.

The new deadline, forced by roadblocks ranging from worsening security to a shortage of local skilled manpower, is just a month before the Afghans elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai in landmark elections that are expected to attract a fresh surge in violence by rebel groups. It is also edging up to a second transition that has India more worried — the withdrawal of US and Nato forces from a still volatile Afghanistan by end 2014.

“Our absolutely non-negotiable target now is to complete the parliament building before the withdrawal of international forces,” said V. Jagadeesh, the executive in charge of Afghanistan projects at Hyderabad-based BSCPL, one of the two infrastructure firms that are building the parliament complex in Kabul for India’s Central Public Works Department (CPWD).

Government officials confirmed that the CPWD and its contractors have been told that they must complete the parliament before the withdrawal of Nato forces that New Delhi fears may provide Pakistan-backed groups an uncertain security climate ideal for them to target Indian projects in Afghanistan.

India hopes the new parliament complex will emerge a lasting symbol of its commitment to the war-ravaged nation as it takes baby steps towards an entrenched democracy.

It is also meant as a reminder to Afghans of the differences between the world’s largest democracy and Pakistan — that has swung between military dictatorships and brief spells of elected governments — in a region where both countries are wary of the other’s influence. Islamabad accuses India’s four consulates in Afghanistan of acting as bases for espionage in Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan region, charges New Delhi has vehemently denied.

The complex, fully funded by India, will consist of a three-storey bronze-domed main building that will host a 294-seater Wolesi Jirga or lower House, a 190-seater Meshrano Jirga or upper House, conference rooms, dining halls, canteen, press room, library, auditorium and parking facilities.

The parliament project, taken up by India in 2005, was initially slated for completion by December 2011. But completing infrastructure projects in an environment like Afghanistan hasn’t been easy, government officials argue.

“There are repeated kidnappings and threats that make it hard to continue work,” a senior official said. In 2008, the Indian embassy in Kabul was attacked by terrorists believed to have Pakistani links, and Jagadeesh vividly recalls an explosion right in front of the under-construction parliament complex. “It can be scary,” he said.

At the site for the new parliament on central Kabul’s Darulaman Road, labourers stop work at 5pm, unwilling to test their fears in the dark. Local skilled labour is hard to find, and Indians aren’t easy to cajole into taking up the risk of working in a hostile environment. The Indian embassy in Kabul receives frequent intelligence inputs warning of possible attacks, and contractors and workers stop work temporarily.

Some Indian officials complain that the Afghan government “keeps changing the specifications” for the parliament complex. And tensions with Islamabad mean that raw material that could be sourced from Pakistan needs to be brought all the way from India or Iran.

But the latest delay is worrying India more than the previous hold-ups because of the uncertainty that would shroud incomplete projects when international forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Theoretically, since Indian paramilitary forces provide security for New Delhi’s projects there — not the Nato-led forces in Afghanistan — the withdrawal of international forces ought not to affect India’s infrastructure construction, said I.P. Bakshi, former Indian envoy to Kabul. But India’s enemies in Afghanistan haven’t been those challenging the International Security Assistance Force.

“Most Afghans see Indian projects in positive light, and even the warlords fighting the Afghan government don’t attack Indian assets,” Bakshi said. “The problem for India there comes from Pakistan-sponsored entities, like the Haqqani group.”

India fears that the withdrawal of international troops as a balancing force in Afghanistan may urge Pakistan to step up anti-India activities there, in a bid to assert itself strategically. And symbols of Indian presence — like the parliament building —may become easy targets.