THESE days, dams are in the news for all the wrong reasons, such as the recent collapse of a major hydroelectric project in Sikkim, which occurred due to the outburst of a glacial lake in the upper reaches. Large dam projects have received criticism for their adverse ecological and social impacts. However, there is no denying that the journey of big dams is intertwined with the very story of modern India. Big dams constructed in the 1950s served twin purposes — irrigating large areas of agricultural land and producing electricity for industrialisation. Some were designed for flood control. The expansion of irrigation, along with the investments made in fertiliser production and agriculture research, helped make India self-sufficient in food in the 1960s and 1970s. This remains the biggest post-independence success story, despite attempts to portray big dams and the Green Revolution as villains by critics.
The planning for development projects began much before 1947, under the aegis of the National Planning Committee (NPC) formed by then Indian National Congress President Subhas Chandra Bose in 1938. Meghnad Saha, who mooted the idea of NPC, argued, “We must rebuild our economic system by utilising the resources of our land and harnessing the energy of our rivers.” Several technocrat members of NPC as well as Nehru and Bose were admirers of big projects in the Soviet Union as well as dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US. At that time, the TVA was constructing about two dozen dams in the Tennessee basin for flood control, power generation and navigation. Colonial rulers too were interested in exploiting the ‘water power’ of Indian rivers. In the 1930s, two leading engineers — Kanwar Sain and Ajudhia Nath Khosla — were sent to the US to study large dams that were under construction in Colorado. All this culminated into plans for building large dams for irrigation and power generation after India gained its independence.
Among the projects identified for development in the First Five-Year Plan were Bhakra-Nangal, Hirakud and Nagarjuna Sagar. The challenge was to overcome the lack of technical personnel, trained labour and equipment needed for the construction of large structures. During his first visit to the US as the Prime Minister in 1949, Nehru went to the TVA and sought technical and engineering help for developing river valley projects. The TVA provided technical personnel, including Andrew Komora, who was made the chief engineer of Damodar Valley Corporation.
The construction of the Bhakra and Nangal dams, along with the associated canal system, began in 1948. A concrete gravity dam, Bhakra was 740 feet from the deepest foundation and was the second highest in the world, next only to the Hoover Dam on the Colorado river. The Nangal Dam, downstream of Bhakra, is separate one. Together, they are referred to as Bhakra-Nangal. The Nangal canal was opened in July 1954, while the Bhakra Dam was completed in October 1963.
American dam expert Harvey Slocum was appointed the chief engineer of the project. About 40 Americans assisted him in the construction and planning during the early years. Slocum described Bhakra as “probably the most difficult dam ever undertaken”. This, according to him, was due to several technical and logistical challenges such as the remoteness of the site, the geologic formations in the gorge, and the lack of sufficient trained personnel to supervise the workforce of over 70,000. The preparation of the site took years. The gorge was scraped and diversion dams and tunnels were built to route the Sutlej around the dam site. For transporting the concrete from the mixing plants, rail tracks were laid and conveyor belts had to be installed.
For procuring construction machinery and equipment, a new procurement system was devised to cut down delays. When Slocum began working on the project in 1952, American manufacturers had a large sales backlog because dams were under construction in several newly decolonised countries. The Bhakra Control Board approved at once the list of the equipment Slocum submitted, and authorised him to place the orders for machinery along with parts and spares. To speed up shipments, an Indian technical attaché was stationed in Washington exclusively for the Bhakra project, and he operated independently of the Indian Embassy. All this helped cut down delivery time from 18 months to six months. Simultaneously, Indian personnel were trained in handling and maintaining the equipment. A concrete laboratory was established at Bhakra to handle quality testing.
As subsequent developments proved, Bhakra was probably over-designed and its height could have been lower. It was meant to harvest water from Sutlej but later on, water from Beas had to be diverted through the Beas-Sutlej link project because Sutlej’s water was not sufficient to fill it up. In addition, the dam led to the problems of waterlogging and soil alkalinity in the command area. Nehru delivered his iconic speech at the inauguration of the Bhakra Dam on October 22, 1963, in which he spoke about the temples of modern India. He said: “Bhakra Nangal Project is something tremendous, something stupendous, something which shakes you up when you see it. Bhakra, the new temple of resurgent India, is the symbol of India’s progress.”
Because of the temple analogy and the personal interest he took in the faster execution of the projects, Nehru is often portrayed as a votary of big dams. Few, however, would recall that Nehru himself was worried about what he called the ‘disease of gigantism’ or the obsession with large projects. He wanted to see smaller irrigation projects and smaller plants for electricity generation. Speaking of specific adverse impacts of large dams, he said: “On the one side we carry our irrigation works and put more and more water for fresh areas, while on the other side, the land goes out of cultivation due to waterlogging. This is a curious state of affairs and it is far better to stop every irrigation work than allow waterlogging.” As India faces the twin challenges of climate change and low-carbon growth today, it is time to draw lessons from the experience of Bhakra.
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