50 years of Bhakra: A dam inspired by leopard’s leap | chandigarh | Hindustan Times
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50 years of Bhakra: A dam inspired by leopard’s leap

A leopard leaping from one end of a gorge to the other on the Sutlej river over a century ago, witnessed by ICS officer Sir Louis Dane, who later became Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was the site chosen to build a dam. Subsequent to geological tests and surveys, the Bhakra gorge was finalised for building the Bhakra Dam.

chandigarh Updated: Oct 22, 2013 10:59 IST
Gurpreet Singh Nibber

A leopard leaping from one end of a gorge to the other on the Sutlej river over a century ago, witnessed by ICS officer Sir Louis Dane, who later became Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was the site chosen to build a dam. Subsequent to geological tests and surveys, the Bhakra gorge was finalised for building the Bhakra Dam.

In a note on November 18, 1908, Sir Dane wrote, “Here was a site made by God for storage,” and asked Punjab province to explore the possibility.

The need for a dam was felt during pre-Independence days but it took almost 40 years for the proposal to mature. By that time India had got independence and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru started following the project actively.


He visited the dam site during its construction on no less than 13 times. Forty-six million people were living in the Indus basin at the time of Partition; 21 million became part of India and 25 million went to Pakistan.

The cultivable and irrigable land in the basin was 65 million acres, of which 26 million acres remained in India and 39 million acres went to Pakistan. Of 28 million acres under irrigation at the time of Partition, only 5 million acres was part of independent India.

These 28 million acres of irrigated land was using some 75 million acre feet (MAF) of the Indus system waters, of which in 1947, about 66 MAF was used in the Pakistan canals and other 9 MAF in the Indian canals. Unequal division of water and Bengal famine of 1943 were the main factors for building a dam and canal system.

In 1952, MH Slocum arrived from the US to take over as the chief construction consultant for the Bhakra dam and by January 1953 the construction of the dam began.

At the time of commissioning of the dam on October 22, 1963, Nehru called Bhakra the new temple of resurgent India and a symbol of India’s progress. One of the tallest straight gravity dams was built by displacing people of 450 villages and a major portion of Bilaspur town in Himachal Pradesh.

The commissioning of the dam coincided with setting up of green revolution in the joint Punjab in the early 1960s. Water originating from the Bhakra dam reservoir into the canal system helped irrigate vast tracts of arid lands. In the early 1960s, 2.27 lakh hectares was under paddy cultivation which increased to 11.83 lakh hectares in the next 10 years. By 1990, the area under paddy cultivation doubled, with Punjab contributing up to 50% of the country’s rice requirements.

Similarly, the area under wheat increased from 14 lakh hectares in early 1960s to 33 lakh hectares by 1990.

Water from canals originating from the Bhakra dam irrigates 66 lakh acres. It also increased the capacity of the oldest Sirhind canal built in 1870. The water-holding capacity of the canal increased from 9,000 cusecs to 12,625 cusecs. The seasonal river was turned into perennial with the coming up of the dam. https://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2013/10/Rajiv.jpg

Operation of the northern regional grid without the Bhakra and its related machines of the BBMB is near impossible. A back-up of a large reservoir offers flexibility to the operations at the Bhakra. It plays the key role of supplying ‘black start power’ in the event of a grid collapse. Following a grid collapse, the first unit of the Bhakra is synchronised within 5 to 10 minutes, followed by other machines, and start-up power is extended to thermal power stations in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi.

Supply is also extended to important installations like railways tractions, airports and hospitals. On a number of occasions in the event of a grid failure in the past, the supply from the Bhakra is made operational within an hour.

When events of national importance took place in the northern region, such as the Asian Games in 1982, the Commonwealth Games, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the Bhakra played a major role in balancing the grid, with adequate frequency.

(A young Rajiv Gandhi, chief construction consultant MH Slocum and Jawaharlal Nehru at the dam site. File Photo)

Before the building of the dam, the Sutlej river flowing in the plains had a river course spread over eight to 10 km and made the towns along the river vulnerable to floods, especially during monsoons.

Irrigation and power generation are intended benefits of the Bhakra dam, while flood control is seen as an added benefit.

The Gobind Sagar Lake, reservoir of the Bhakra dam, moderates all peak flows that otherwise could have caused severe floods along the river in the past five decades since the dam was commissioned.

The floods of 1978 and 1998 could have done worse damage in the absence of the Bhakra dam. Also, in case the dam was not constructed, the canalisation would have not taken place and there would have been negligible development and economic growth in the region. The real worth of the Sutlej would not have been more than just destroying the plain when in spate.


Bhakra Beas Management Board earns carbon credits by capacity addition of 90 MW at the Bhakra powerhouse by adopting clean development mechanism (CDM). The Bhakra dam saved generation of 2.1 lakh tonne carbon dioxide.

It is projected that by the end of 2013, RM&U capacity addition of 90 MW will be completed and a revenue of approximate Rs 13 crore will be generated from the sale of 2,40,000 carbon emission reductions (CERs) upto December 2013. An emission reduction purchase agreement (ERPA) with the World Bank has been signed by the BBMB for the sale of 2,40,000 CERs at Euro 9/CER up to December 2013.

The vast lakes formed by the Bhakra and Pong reservoirs have become natural habitats for migratory birds, which attract a large number of tourists every year. Pong Dam reservoir has been designated as Ramsar Wetland and is of international importance. More than one lakh migratory birds belonging to 220 species visit the lake every year. The reservoir is one of the 25 international wetland sites declared in India by the Ramsar Convention.

(Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Chaudhary Ranbir Singh Hooda and Partap Singh Kairon at the dam site during the inaugration in October 1963. File Photo)

As per renovation and modernisation of power plants, all five units of the Bhakra left bank power plant were updated, increasing the installed capacity from 450 megawatt to 540 megawatt in the first phase. The installed capacity of the right bank power plant was increased from 600 megawatt to 660 megawatt.

In the second phase, all five units of the Bhakra right power plant have again been renovated from 132 megawatt to 157 megawatt each. The work of renovation of five units of Bhakra left bank machines to enhance their capacity of each unit from 108 megawatt to 126 megawatt is underway.

A consortium led by Sumitomo Construction, Japan, is undertaking the renovation works. Renovation of one unit had been completed by increasing its capacity to 126 megawatt. After completion of renovation works, the installed capacity of Bhakra powerhouses will increase to 1,415 megawatt.

Silt is a big issue which is troubling the BBMB managing the Bhakra dam project. Dead storage level of the dam is 1,462 feet which, insiders in the BBMB say, is proposed to increase due to silt coming in the reservoir. GS Dhillon, retired chief engineer, who was associated with the dam at the time of its construction, accepted that silt is a big issue.

“The total storage of Bhakra’s reservoir is 7.8 MAF of which 1.97 MAF was dead storage capacity, which is increasing because of the huge quantity of silt coming in the reservoir because of urbanisation in the catchment area of the dam,” said Dhillon.

In 1988, after the silver jubilee celebrations were over, the then chairman of BBMB Maj Gen BN Kumar (retd) was killed by terrorists outside his Chandigarh house. During those days, terrorism was at its peak in the state. Gen Kumar got the blame that indecisiveness on his part led to floods in the state. While Gen Kumar was on a foreign tour, the board was unable to decide on opening of floodgates as the water level was rising fast. The floodgates were opened when the water level crossed the maximum level of 1,690 feet.