Thousands of demonstrators from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority marched in protest through Kabul on Monday, accusing President Ashraf Ghani’s government of cutting them out of a multi-million dollar power transmission line project.
Protesters demanded that the planned route for the 500 kV transmission line linking Turkmenistan with Kabul be changed to pass through two provinces with large Hazara populations, an option the government says would cost millions of dollars and delay the badly needed project by years.
It says the current plan ensures that the two provinces of Bamyan and Wardak will get ample electricity even if the main transmission line does not pass through them directly.
The line, intended to provide power to 10 provinces, is part of a wider TUTAP project backed by the Asian Development Bank linking the energy-rich Central Asia republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Despite fears of violence, the demonstration passed largely peacefully, with only isolated reports of trouble and Ghani thanked the protesters. A commission to review the plan will report within 10 days.
However, the demonstration underscored the political tension facing the administration as it fights the Taliban-led insurgency and tries to get the shattered economy to its feet.
The protest followed a rally in November against the murder by militants of a group of Hazara that became the biggest anti-government demonstration in Kabul for years.
Authorities, fearing a repeat of last year’s violence, when demonstrators tried to scale the walls of the presidential palace, blocked streets into the main government area with stacked-up shipping containers.
The mainly Shi’ite Hazaras have long faced persecution but they are politically well organised and thousands gathered in a square away from the city centre chanting “TUTAP is our right!” but they dispersed peacefully.
Only about 30 per cent of Afghanistan is connected to electricity and modernising the creaking power system, which is subject to frequent blackouts, has been a top priority.
Under current plans, due to be implemented by 2018, the line would pass from a converter station in the northern town of Pul-e-Khumri through the mountainous Salang pass to Kabul.
Demonstrators want an earlier version of the plan that would see a longer route from Pul-e-Khumri through Bamyan and Wardak, to the west of Kabul.
The government says that switching the route would delay the project by as much as three years, leaving millions without secure electricity.