When the big dams came up

Congress leaders Karan Singh and Jairam Ramesh at the Nehru Memorial Library’s exhibition ‘Nehru and the Temples of Modern India’ in New Delhi onThursday. Photo: R.V. Moorthy  

The building of big dams and their ecological and social impact remain one of the most controversial development topics in India. The debate often starts with former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous endorsement of them as the “temples of modern India.”

Nehru’s one-time fascination for super-sized industrial projects formed an integral part of his early tenure as Prime Minister and was central to his vision of a resurgent India, where industrial engineering and agricultural growth went hand in hand. As part of its commemoration of Nehru’s legacy on his 125th birth anniversary, the Nehru Memorial Library’s exhibition “Nehru and the Temples of Modern India”, which opened on Thursday, provides an interesting glimpse into the optimism and passion that accompanied the building of India’s first mega dams. India’s first Five Year Plan provided for three major hydroelectric projects — the Bhakra Nangal dam in Punjab, the Hirakud dam on the Mahanadi in Orissa and the Nagarjuna Sagar dam on the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh.

The exhibition is made up of several frames, each narrating a different aspect of the history of these projects. It starts with pictures of Nehru from when he inaugurated each project and the accompanying quotes from each occasion.

Panels in the exhibition are dedicated to the engineers who planned and built these dams. The exhibition features full-page spreads from newspapers of the day. From the Hindustan Times, a spread on the Bhakra dam contains a set of articles written by the project’s superintending engineers. It explains why the dam was built, gives a snapshot of the personalities involved in its building and goes into details such as the materials used and the pattern of work followed by the labourers. The newspaper carries a similar spread on the Hirakud dam and its potential. The Hindu carries one on Nagarjuna Sagar.

It was while speaking at Bhakra and Nangal in 1954 that Nehru coined the famous “Temples of Modern India” phrase. A panel in the exhibition explains that though this is misleadingly cited as evidence of a big vs small debate, Nehru’s invocation in these speeches was for all Indians to rise above creed and community in a peaceful endeavour for the collective good.

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 3:09:22 PM |

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