A Temple to a Nation’s Vision of Growth

The dam was newly-independent India’s prized achievement. Few projects came close in terms of scale and self-reliance. It played a crucial role in making India self-sufficient in food production

Ahona Ghosh

Bhakra-Nangal was the first of the large dams that former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called “temples of modern India”. Widely perceived to have played a crucial role in India becoming self-sufficient in food production, it gave a newly-independent India a feeling of self-reliance and pride in its achievements.
Located in the village of Bhakra in Himachal Pradesh’s Bilaspur region, amidst the lusciously green Sutlej-Beas river valley, the dam took 12 years to build, starting in 1951.
Towering at 740 ft, it is one of the highest gravity dams in the world. Three times taller than the Qutub Minar, it irrigates 7 million acres in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The dam sent ripples beyond the region. For every 100 of direct benefits — irrigation and hydropower — Bhakra generated 90 in indirect benefits for the regional economy, says a 2005 study that assessed its impact. “Besides benefitting agricultural production, the dam has been used for transportation and by the fisheries industry,” says AB Agrawal, chairman, Bhakra Beas Management Board. This was Nehru’s vision for the project when he commissioned it. He inaugurated the Bhakra Canal System on July 7, 1954, and dedicated the dam to the nation on October 22, 1963.
The project is considered landmark for another reason: Indian planners and engineers took some ground-breaking decisions. One was to build the Bhakra Canal System before the dam, while the other was to construct the dam with the help of foreign experts. The decision to build the Bhakra Canal System before the dam, so water supply would be available to farmers as early as possible, is a landmark in the history of river valley projects.
The uniqueness of this project was in the soundness of its management and coordination, says Agrawal. In the 1950s, high-tech machinery was not available. Coordinating and managing small units of manual work was a mammoth task, which this project accomplished. “Today if we had to mobilise manpower on such a huge scale, it would be very difficult,” says Agrawal. Nearly five decades on, the dam has run without major hitches. A lift, with a carrying capacity of 24 persons, built back then at the side of the dam is still in operation ‘without any jerks,’ says Agrawal. Interestingly, Nehru visited the project 13 times during its construction because of his fondness and pride for the project. “The place where he stayed during his visits has been kept intact; even the crockery he used at the time has been preserved,” says Agrawal. The then Punjab chief minister, Bhimsen Sachar, has said Nehru had resolutely refused to let the dam be named “Nehru Dam.” Instead, the Prime Minister suggested to the Bhakra Control Board that when the work was completed, a simple memorial be erected.
The Bhakra Dam project is today used as a model to justify large dam programmes elsewhere in the country. The Bhakra Beas Management Board irrigates 50,000 sq km of land and provides 2800 MW of hydropower. The dam has two exclusive power houses with a total capacity of 1,325 MW on either side of the river. The power generated at Bhakra power houses is distributed among Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.
But if the dam has its votaries, it has an equal number of opponents. It led to the displacement of 36,000 people and submerged Bilaspur, a town with a population of 4,000 people, according to a report titled, ‘Unravelling Bhakra: Assessing the Temple of Resurgent India’ by Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, headed by Shripad Dharmadhikary. Many of the oustees have still not been settled fully, and government efforts in this direction have been sporadic, says the report.
The report also points to the environmental impact of the dam which includes the loss of forests, wildlife and fishes, and an increase in the incidence of disease among those living near the dam because of the excessive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide in the command area. Evaluating the impact on the ecological health of Punjab and Haryana has been difficult because of the lack of data before the dam was built and not enough monitoring of the area after it was constructed.
Agrawal disputes the numbers, but says a balance has to be created between large and small dams. “Large dams help meet demands for drinking water, agriculture and irrigation,” he says.
Fact File
245 cr

Concrete straight gravity

• Height above the deepest foundation: 740 ft

• Height above the river bed:
550 ft

• Elevation at top of dam above mean sea level:
1,700 ft

• Steel used: 101,600 TONNES

View of the completed Bhakra Nangal Dam
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