Soon after Mr Slocum of Coulee Dam fame in the US took over in 1953 as the chief engineer of Bhakra Dam, there was a spate of vacancies for engineers. Like others from across the country, my brother-in-law, a graduate from BHU, joined as a temporary engineer. I was a college student at Amritsar then, but the romance of having a periodic glimpse of the construction of the then highest straight gravity concrete dam of the world often sent me to Nangal township, a well-laid small city on the banks of the Sutlej, to provide first-class family accommodation to the workers and officers.
The tapering V-shaped RCC monolith, 325 ft across the river at the base and 740 ft high from the riverbed, was to acquire a length of 1,700 ft across at the top. The conspicuous horn of the diesel locomotive plying between the dam and the city, a distance of about 13 km, to transport the staff, still rings in my ears as a time signal. About 13,000 workers and 300 engineers worked for almost 10 years in three shifts. Rake after rake of quality cement would be unloaded into humongous silos to ensure an uninterrupted supply for the concrete mixture from the cooling plant. That was why cement was available to people only on ration cards.
Mr Slocum had also demanded a school and healthcare centre to serve the populace. Even a primary school student would spell out the salient features of the dam, as if it was in the syllabus. A picture of neatness and orderliness, the foothill township had a natural drainage, and a plethora of slopes. You saw youngsters running their toy water turbines wherever there was a sloping drain. ‘SLOCUM’ (he used to sign in capital letters) was a household name and a role model. No wonder, many of those boys later became civil engineers.
Passes were issued to the visitors for seeing the dam on the ground floor of the overhead water tank, just in front of our house. Cameras or binoculars were banned. For us, it was easy to get a pass. I remember with awe when my nephew and I, then only about 12, went to see the dam without informing anyone at home. The boy was known to everyone and soon we found ourselves crisis-crossing the labyrinth of hundreds of drainage galleries of the mountainous dam.
Initially, we did come across some workers but after a few wrong turns and climbs, we were lost in the maze of multi-level inspection galleries where entry is recorded and strictly monitored.
I could imagine the future that awaited us. But fortunately for us, the shift hooter sounded and we saw some workers moving out of the structure. We mutely followed them and heaved a sigh when after about two hours, we saw daylight. My brother-in-law, who later retired as a superintending engineer, never knew of this lifetime folly of mine.
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