In Kishanganga dam security, more than Pakistan shelling, sabotage a concern

In November 2016, as India-Pakistan tensions escalated in the weeks after the attack in Uri and India’s much publicised strike-back, workers at the Kishanganga Hydel Electricity Project in Gurez in North Kashmir experienced for the the first time the dangers of the Line of Control. In all, 18 shells fell from across the LoC, just a kilometre away over the hills, on both sides of the dam, which was then close to completion.

“All of us just left whatever we were doing and ran into the tunnel,” said Sanjay Kumar, an employee of the construction company building the dam.

The tunnel, completed in June 2014, is an integral part of the KHEP — it takes the water from the Kishanganga River in Gurez Valley to an underground power station at Bandipora in the Kashmir Valley. Back then, there was no water in it. According to dam officials, along with the workers, a large number of villagers too, rushed into the tunnel for shelter, and demanded to be evacuated.

“We had to call the Army for help,” a dam official said.

“But that was the first and last time this happened in all my years here,” said Kumar, who joined the project in November 2009.

On Monday, following intelligence reports of cross-LoC infiltration bids in Gurez, the government decided to review security at KHEP. Hundreds of CISF personnel currently guard the dam. An Army camp deployed on the LoC is nearby, providing an added layer of overall defence for the dam. During a recent visit by this correspondent, a row of artillery guns inside the camp was visible from the road, their barrels trained at the mountain.

If India decided to locate the project there despite the evident dangers of the LoC, it could not have been without the confidence that it could handle this challenge, dam officials who did not wish to be named, told The Indian Express.

The biggest defence, said the officials, is that any act to destroy the dam would actually pose the greatest danger to Pakistan — the maximum impact would be felt downstream, across the LoC, in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. As the Kishanganga flows, the LoC is only about 10 km from the dam, and habitation begins almost immediately. The first village in PoK, along the banks of the Neelum, as the river is known across the LoC, is Tawbal.

Of the 27 villages in Gurez, only six are located downstream along the banks of the Kishanganga, and all have been shifted uphill due to the dam.

However, even assuming that the dam is targeted, shelling from across the LoC does not pose a real danger, officials said. The dam is located in a gorge, and is not in the direct line of fire. In the event that a shell does hit it, the dam, one official said, “is a heavy structure, and can withstand shelling”.

A more serious concern is sabotage by an individual or groups, said the official. But that too would pose the same dangers of flooding downstream. The river is wide enough to cause flooding at a discharge of about 2,000 cumec (cubic metres per second). The Kishanganga dam has a pondage of about 7 million cubic metres, but how this will translate into water flow will depend on the extent of damage to the dam, and consequently, the time it would take for it to flow out.

The people who live in the villages near the dam site are also thought of as another layer of security. In Kashmir, the people of Gurez are considered pro-India. Many are directly or indirectly employed by the Army.

As for the other parts of the project, the tunnel is bored deep in the mountains, and transports the water of the Kishanganga to an underground power station in Bandipora in the Kashmir Valley. Officials say that these portions of the dam are inaccessible, and would be difficult if not outright impossible to target.