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Money for the drain or democratic gain?

Masood Momin
The soon-to-be inaugurated new Afghan Parliament building boasts four blocks, 20,000 square metres of marble, a bronze dome and 400 residential quarters for politicians. But is the 165-million-dollar complex…
14.10.2013  |  Kabul
The former presidential palace, known locally as Darul Aman Palace, which was destroyed in battles for Kabul in the early 1990s (Photos: Masood Momin)
The former presidential palace, known locally as Darul Aman Palace, which was destroyed in battles for Kabul in the early 1990s (Photos: Masood Momin)

Essential trappings for an aspiring democracy, or boondoggle extravagance in a country that is saddled by poverty and long disillusioned with the lavish practices of the ruling elite?

The jury is still out on the new Afghan Parliament building project, but judging from the sums involved and first reactions from the public, it is unlikely to be a happy verdict.

"The government in Afghanistan pays little enough attention to the reconstruction it should do," said Razawi Kiki, a 21-year-old student at Kabul University. "Instead of building a new Parliament, how about they build some schools instead?"

But after a slow start, it seems the new home of the legislature will soon echo to the debates of the day: “The construction for the Parliament of Afghanistan is 80 per cent finished,” Wasayullah Faqiri, director of Monitoring and Evaluation at the Ministry of Urban Development, told Afghanistan Today.

Funded and constructed by the Indian government, the giant site is now expected to be completed in early 2014, two years later than scheduled.

Royal push forward

Afghanistan's last king Mohammed Zahir Shah laid the first stone for the new construction at a ceremony on August 29, 2005 in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

But earnest construction of the vast project only began in 2009 and was initially supposed to be completed by mid-2012.

Despite delays in sourcing materials amidst security concerns, the Indian government has spared no expense as part of a charm offensive aid package which includes the provisions of roads, pipelines and schools.

So far $165 million spent

New Parliament building, KabulOpulent yet overdue: the new Parliament building is still a construction site.

India has spent 165 million US dollars on the Parliament project to date. But repeated deadline extensions means the building is now 18 months overdue and not expected to be completed until March 4, 2014.

“The building was designed by CPWD, the official representative of the government of India, but the construction is being done by two Indian companies called BSC-C and CJV,” says Faqiri, who is part of a three-man team of engineers from the Ministry for Urban Development, the watchdog over the quality of materials used but not the actual construction.

“In terms of quality, their work is good, but as far as completion of the project and their speed, we are not happy,” says Faqiri.

But another of the three engineers from the ministry, Muhammad Rahimi, says the blame game cuts two ways. “Under the contract, the walls around the facility and the facility for administration are to be built by the government of Afghanistan, but these things have not been done yet,” says Rahimi.

So what's the hold-up?

Afghanistan Today's request for an interview with Dr. Sayeed Sharif Hosseini, advisor to the Ministry of Urban Development and manager of the project, was declined. CPWD, the Indian government’s construction company and the Indian Consulate in Kabul, were also unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Tough job: Engineer Wasiullah Faqiri from the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development says the quality of the new Parliament building is good, but the pace of construction poor.

Meanwhile, local residents have questioned the wisdom of building residential accomodation for politicians when thousands of rank-and-file civil servants have nowhere to live.

"In my view it would be nice if the Indian government were to invest this money to build residential towns for those teachers and government employees who don’t have private homes and apartments," said Baz Mohammad Salihee, a resident of Kabul's 7th District.

Domes and lavish homes

Criticism of the project revolves mainly around the opulence with which the new Parliament is being built. Block A, which will host the House of Representatives, looks like a dome, is 30 metres high and made of copper. It is ICT-equipped and Parliamentarians can cast their votes electronically from within the building.

Block B is a four-storey building and contains two huge facilities, one for meetings and the other for press conferences. Block B will also host 18 Parliamentary commissions.

Block C comprises 1,000-square-metres of ceremonial halls for gatherings. A fountain adorns the middle of the block and the rooftop is built with skylite.

The Senate and its 127 senators will be in Block D. All four blocks will be made of marble, although the sourcing of the precious material has caused endless headaches for the engineers. And what could have been a helpful boost to Afghanistan's marble industry went wrong at the first attempt.

Losing its marbles?

Two labourers work with Herati marble on the construction site of the new Afghan Parliament building.

“In the contract, it was mentioned that yellow marble from Samangan province should be used for the decoration of this facility, but the Afghan company failed to produce enough and deliver them in a timely manner,” says Faqiri from the Ministry of Urban Development.

“It was then decided that white marble from Chesht in Herat Province be used instead. According to our calculations, 20,000 square metres of white marble will be used in this building.”

Many observers have questioned the wisdom of such lavish plenitude: 34 bathrooms, dozens of marble staircases and bronze domes when nearby residents still lack access to clean water, shelter and basic amenities.

Waste of money or democracy building?

“Right now most of our people are jobless and uneducated. If this money were invested in sections of industrial factories and education, then Afghanistan would get real benefits in the future,” says Mubeenullah Aimaq, a resident of Darul Aman, where the Parliament is being built.

But a former Parliamentarian, Mir Ahmad Joyanda, said the new home of government is money well spent. “Building this facility will help improve parliamentary relations between Afghanistan and India,” Joyanda told Afghanistan Today. "It is a positive step for the institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan."

 

Uzra Shamal, AT's resident cartoonist, offers her take on the new Parliament project.