Developmental History of Bhakra – Nangal Dam Project


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.

-Jawaharlal Nehru

Brief History

The proposal to construct a storage reservoir on the satluj first time originated in a note dated 8 November 1908 by Sir Louis Dane indicating Suni and Badu Gorges as being favourable sites for dams for storage and power development. A detailed report on this proposal was submitted in March 1910. However, the estimated cost of the project was considered prohibitive and project was shelved.

1919 Project Report

The proposal for a dam on the satluj was again revived by Mr. F.E. Gwyther, the then Chief Engineer, in a note dated 20 February 1915. On the basis of this note, the first detailed and comprehensive project report for a high dam at Bhakra was prepared in 1919.

The 1919 project report provided for the storage of the unutilized satluj water during the period of excess flow and essentially consisted of the following four big works:

  • Bhakra Dam
  • Upper Sirhind Canal
  • Lower Sirhind Canal
  • The Western Yamuna Canal Extension.

The proposed dam was to be 120.40m (395 ft) high located about 69 km (43 miles) from Ropar almost at the same place as where the present dam has been constructed. It provided for a maximum storage of 3182.38 million m3 (2.58 million-acre ft). The dam was to have a solid masonry gravity section arched in plan and was to be the highest dam in the world at that time. The project did not provide for any hydroelectric installation and was essentially an irrigation project. The project was fully supported by geological investigations carried out by the Geological Survey of India.

The 1919 project, however, never materialised and was shelved in favour of the satluj Valley Project sanctioned in 1919.

Proposal of the Project during 1920-1938 The 1919 Project although not pursued further, resulted in a series of investigations and examination of the Bhakra Gorge by eminent Geologists and Engineers. In December 1924, the Chief Geologist to the Attock Oil Co. inspected the site and on his recommendations drifts were excavated on both banks of the river above the summer flood level to expose unweathered rock at the dam site. In 1925, the Superintendent Geologist, Geological Survey of India scrutinized the strata thus laid bare and reported on the geological aspects of the proposed dam. In 1927, a Committee consisting of Mr. A.J. Wiley, Consulting Engineer on Dams to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Irrigation Service, Dr. E.S. Pinfold, the Chief Geologist to the Attock Oil Co. and Mr. W.H. Nicholson, Chief Engineer of Punjab Irrigation was formed to report on the proposed Bhakra Dam site and other possible storage sites between rivers Yamuna and the Chenab. The Committee inspected the Bhakra site in November 1927, and their report prominently brought to the notice the advantages of a 152.40m (500 ft) high dam over the previously proposed 120.40m (395 ft) high dam as contemplated in the 1919 project. In 1932, surveys for the reservoir area for a 152.40m (500 ft) high dam were carried out.

1939-42 Project Report

In 1939, a Detailed Project Report for a 152.40m (500 ft) high dam was taken up by Dr. A.N. Khosla, the then Superintending Engineer, Project Circle. In this project, a 152.40m (500 ft) high straight gravity concrete dam with a storage of 5859 million m3 (4.75 million acre ft) at maximum reservoir El.487.68m (1,600 ft) was contemplated. The height of the dam was based on the detailed geological information then available. The project covered various important aspects of the design like seismicity of the dam site, silting of the reservoir, diversion of the river during construction, adequacy of spillway capacity, preparation of foundation and abutments, placing of concrete, etc., and provided for hydro-electric power development for the first time. Provision for four units of 40 MW each with a fifth auxiliary unit also of 40 MW capacity was made in the estimate.

In 1944, Dr. J.L. Savage, the then Chief Engineer, United States Bureau of Reclamation was requested by the Punjab Government to examine the site and report on the feasibility of construction of a dam with maximum reservoir level at El.487.68m (1,600 ft). He recommended that the dam site was suitable for the purpose and suggested further explorations of foundation and abutments. This work was carried out during 1945-47 under the supervision of Dr. F.A. Nickell, an American Geologist of considerable experience and provided detailed geological information for the subsequent design work. In all, 58 holes were drilled in the course of preliminary explorations aggregating to an approximate length of 2,134 m. Further explorations after the approval of the project, however, continued upto 1955 to finally establish the geological features of the area correctly and to devise the foundation treatment scheme. A total of about 12,802 m of core drilling was done to complete the sub-surface investigation. Additionally, 1.21 km of drifts were excavated to supplement the knowledge of sub-surface geology and to inspect the rock available.

1945-46 Project Report

In 1945-46, specification designs, with maximum reservoir at El.481.58 m (1,580 ft), were prepared by the International Engineering Co. Denver, U.S.A. The limitation of the maximum reservoir elevation was imposed by the Draft Bilaspur Agreement of 1945 between the Punjab Government and the Raja of Bilaspur.

Based on the 1939-42 project, firm power studies of 1945-46 and various reports of experts, the design provided for a straight gravity dam having top at El.487.68 m (1,600 ft) with a drum gate spillway, a tunnel spillway, river outlet, tunnel outlet works and a firm power installation of 150 MW.

Final Proposal of the Project during 1948-51

In 1948 when irrigation & power demands of the partitioned state of Punjab on the Indian side further increased, the question of the height of the dam, the top elevation which was fixed at El. 487.68 m (1,600 ft) only to prevent the submergence of Bilaspur town, was reviewed and it was decided to construct the dam to the maximum safe optimum height as determined by foundation rock conditions, so as to fully exploit irrigation and power potential. After necessary water power studies and further foundation explorations, it was decided in 1948 to raise the dam to its optimum height with the full reservoir level at El.512.06 m (1,680 ft), later on further raised to El. 513.58 m (1,685 ft).

The revised designs and specifications for the higher dam were again entrusted to International Company Inc. USA through an agreement dated 14 November 1948 between the Irrigation Branch of Public Works Department (PWD) of Punjab and International Company Inc. USA.

In 1951, a revised project report was prepared for the 207.26 m (680 ft) high, straight gravity dam.

The final project proposal comprised the following units:
  • Bhakra Dam and Power Plants
  • Nangal Dam
  • Nangal Hydel Channel
  • Ganguwal & Kotla Power Houses on the Nangal Hydel Channel
    • Remodelling of Ropar Headworks
    • Remodelling of Sirhind Canal
  • Bhakra Canals
  • Bist Doab Canal
  • Transmission and distribution system of electrical energy
  • Development of markets and communications of Bhakra area

Thus, with the above proposal, Bhakra Nangal Project took the shape of a true multi-purpose project, providing irrigation and power generation as its main benefits and facilities for flood prevention, recreation and fish culture as incidental advantages.

Constitution of Bhakra-Control Board- An Agency for Construction of Bhakra-Nangal Project After independence in 1947, the two eminent engineers of the Punjab, Dr. A.N.Khosla and Er. Kanwar Sain, continued their efforts of impressing upon Govt. of India through Union Minister for Works, Mines & Power, Shri N.V. Gadgil the urgency & dire need of speedy construction of Bhakra Dam.

A debate ensued as to who should build the dam. Did the Indian engineers possess the requisite skill and experience to construct a dam of vast magnitute and technical complexities? Could they do it alone? Could the dam be built by the Public Works Department? It was Dr.A.N. Khosla who, with great ability and vision understood the problem and laid down three fundamental policies in this regard. Firstly, he pleaded forcefully that the dam should be constructed by P.W.D. under the guidance of foreign experts. Secondly, the Government of India should play a pro-active role in the building of stupendous dam, the like of which had never been built in the country. Thirdly, since the matter was of inter-provincial importance and the aim was to meet the water requirement of three states viz Punjab, Pepsu and Rajasthan, the height of dam should be increased by about 100 feet.

Thus, Bhakra Control Board an agency to supervise and monitor the progress of the Project was constituted. This organisation had representatives of the Central Government, the Government of Punjab, Pepsu and Rajasthan consisted of: -

  • Governor of Punjab    ...... Chairman
  • Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Government of India    ...... Vice-Chairman
  • Chairman, Central Water and Power Commission, Government of India    ...... Member
  • Secretaries of various states’ Governments in charge of Irrigation and Power and also Finance Member
  • All the Chief Engineers – Incharge of construction    ...... Member
  • Joint Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Government of India    ...... Member

Later on, in 1952 a “Board of Consultants” was also set up under the Chairmanship of Dr.A.N. Khosla.

Construction Phase of Bhakra-Nangal Project during 1951 - 1963

The working conditions at Bhakra in the early years of the Project Layout and Construction were appalling, to say the least. The rail-head was up to Ropar (Punjab) only, about 60 Km away from Nangal, the construction of further extension up to Nangal started in 1946. There was hardly any road from Ropar to Nangal before independence, the extension of which up to Nangal started in 1947. Slowly and steadily, the necessary infrastructure started coming up only after 1948. A 50-bed hospital, the first of its kind, was set up at Nangal in 1951 only.

Two very vital decisions were taken by Indian Planners and Engineers. One was to build the Bhakra Canal System first in preference to Bhakra Dam and the other to construct the Dam departmentally with the help of foreign experts. Although USBR was design consultant for Bhakra Dam, the execution came in the hands of Indian Engineers of the Deptt. of Irrigation. The full-fledged construction activity started only after April 1952 when Mr. M.Harvey Slocum arrived with his team of construction technicians and engineers from America.

The decision to build the Bhakra Canal System before the Dam could be completed was bold, imaginative and of course fruitful. It will remain a landmark in the history of river valley projects. The chief credit for this step goes to Er. Kanwar Sain, Member of the Central Water & Power Commission. It was decided that bulk of the funds and efforts be concentrated on the early completion of the canal system so that non-perennial supply of water might be available to the farmers as early as possible. The ready acceptance and quick implementation of such a policy resulted in the completion of the Bhakra Canal System, which was inaugurated by the First Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, on 7th July 1954.

Pt.Nehru was immensely proud and fond of Bhakra. He visited the project 10 times during its construction. Fired by passion and enthusiasm to build new India, all engineers and technicians put in un-tiring efforts day & night for almost a decade to build Bhakra Dam – the Nation’s Pride. Pt. Nehru dedicated the dam to the nation on 22nd October 1963.


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