In a sense, “the noble mansion of free India”, as Jawaharlal Nehru described it in his “A Tryst with Destiny” speech, was built in steel and cement too. The Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), established on July 7, 1948 by an Act of Parliament and the first of the “multipurpose projects”, was envisioned as one of the institutions that would lay the groundwork for modern India.
The Damodar river flowing through Jharkhand (previously part of Bihar) and West Bengal frequently caused floods. A catastrophic flood in 1943 prompted the Bengal government to appoint the Damodar Flood Enquiry Committee, which proposed the formation of an authority similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US and the construction of dams and reservoirs.
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DVC has a network of four dams—Tilaiya and Maithon on the Barakar, Panchet on the Damodar, and Konar on the Konar—and the Durgapur barrage. The first dam on the Barakar was built in 1953.
According to its 2020–21 annual report, DVC’s command area is 24,235 sq. km, and its total installed capacity from thermal, hydel, and solar power is 7,107.2 MW. It provides power to eight States, with transmission lines extending to 8,390 circuit kilometres. In terms of water management, DVC has 2,494 km of canals and a flood reserve capacity of 1,172 million cubic metres and an irrigation potential of 3.64 lakh hectares.
“Temples of modern India” such as these, as Nehru called them in his speech at the inauguration of the Bhakra Nangal dam on the border of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in 1954, may have been central to nation-building in the early days of Independence to “leap across the mighty moat of poverty”, but many were sacrificed at the altar of development. Budhni Mejhan represents them.
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On December 6, 1959, at the inauguration of DVC’s fourth dam (Panchet), Nehru asked a worker on the site, the 15-year-old Budhni, to press the button to signal the start of operations. She also garlanded him, for which act she was excommunicated from her village, for in their eyes she had effectively married Nehru. In 1962, she also lost her job at DVC. The displacement and impoverishment of tribal populations such as Budhni’s has largely gone unnoticed. Was Nehru, as is widely assumed, an ardent supporter of large projects? Actually, he critically evaluated the impact of modern engineering structures on river valleys and later labelled them “a disease of gigantism”.