The damned dam of Bhimtal

rajshekhar

Rajshekhar Pant | December 29, 2014



One among the first few masonry dams built in 19th century British India, the Bhimtal dam has outlived its prescribed age of a century by over twenty-five years. Situated twenty Km downhill from Nainital, close to a 17th century temple on a natural gap in the eastern side of the of the largest water sheet (155 acres) of the lake district of Uttarakhand, this 500ft long, 48.5 ft high and 30 ft wide weir with convex side upstream and curtain walls at the main outlet was designed in Sept 1882 and completed in 1883 as reveals a paper (A Forgotten Chapter in Dam History: Masonry Dam in British India in Nineteenth Century) by Mike Chrimes of the Institute of Civil Engineers, London UK.

Incidentally, the state irrigation department hardly has any information with regard to its history. A report by Mahesh Upreti a senior Journo from Uttarakhand reveals that a few years back even the irrigation minister of the state could recall it with deliberation that there exists a dam on Bhimtal lake.

With a sole intention to irrigate the fertile tracts of the then upcoming foothill settlement of Haldwani, Captain (Sir) Henry Ramsay, the legendry Commissioner of Kumaon then, was determined to seal the breach of lake water from its natural opening eastwards. His earlier efforts in mid 1850s and 1870s marked with the construction of small earthen dams with a thin masonry core wall could not withstand the severe storms of Aug1882. Using Rankine’s (1858-62) criteria for safe dam design -that nowhere on any horizontal section of the dam should tension be allowed to develop, whether on the air or water face, and whether the dam was empty or full- the original proposals for concrete dam were replaced by one with rubble masonry outer walls and concrete core. The design of this dam with massive wing walls is assumed to have been the work of Francis Hanry Ashurst. The contracts were drawn up by Colonel Mayne RE, Chief Engineer NWP and the work supervised by J Doherty. 

No restoration work has since been done on this over a century old structure which with the shift of emphasis from irrigation to drinking water has also been quenching the thirst of the burgeoning population in the foothill settlements. The nonchalant attitude of administration towards safety measures, it is apprehended, may soon result in the ultimate collapsing of the dam. Cracks and crevices have already started surfacing on the wing, curtain walls and the general body of the embankment. “Arranging ritual cosmetics every year by way of applying a coat of cement paste on cracks and then covering the whole expanse with reds and blues just before the advent of tourist season and the visits of VIPs-” observes a local activist, “-the department of irrigation has wishfully been thinking that this colonial structure is for ever.”

Rapid construction-binge along the shoreline, keeping at bay all the regulatory norms has increased the rate of silting in the lake several folds. With the apprehension that much of the silted bottom is drifting speedily towards the sluices in the dam it was proposed sometime in the nineties that the height of the dam should be increased. Reflecting on this issue the Irrigation Design Organisation, Roorkee stated quite categorically that any tinkering with the dam may be fatal. The report speaks of damaged masonry joints and fungus eaten plaster on the face of the dam. It is also apprehended that below the minimum water level the condition is more critical. The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) recommends that estimation of the bottom cracks and the consequent weakening of the interior of the dam should be done following core drilling. Showing a deep concern over the existing state of the dam the report speaks of taking up restoration work without further delay. This report, understood to have been forwarded to the office of the Principal Secretary on June 30, 1995 “must have been gathering dust in some plush office at the state secretariat in Dehradun,” says an insider from the administration. Commenting on the apathy and indifference of the department of irrigation Rashid Ali Khan, an owner of a fleet of sail boats in the lake informs, “it is quite surprising to know that one of the main mechanical sluices installed initially in the dam is lying defunct for over a decade or so and no body bothers.” In the torrential and incessant rains in September a couple of years back the lake got swollen to a record height of 44 ft- a level to which the lake was never allowed to swell in the past decade or so.  “Fearing the sudden bursting of the dam a settlement downstream was evacuated overnight” adds Rashid further.

The perceptible blasé towards the dam probably is the fallout of that mentality the root of which is marked by that degeneration which over the years has been instrumental in dissociating ourselves with our heritage. Despite it being a much frequented tourist distention there is no information board anywhere in Bhimtal which speaks of the heritage status of the dam or the temple.

The rich treasure-trove of legends, which happened to have the status of the most popular bed-time stories in my childhood, does not interest anyone now. Nobody plays now hide & seek in the hollow corridor along the curtain walls we used to call Haulbagh in our infancy. The ancient caravansary of Bachi Gaud in the southeastern end of the lake has also been razed; even a picture of this hoary structure, which once happened to shelter those traversing the stretch of the legendry silk-route along the shoreline of the lake, is not available now. 

And yes, the old monument raised in the memory of Juna Giri, a colourful personality engaged in the construction of the dam as one of the main contractors, is often taken to be a pile of stones and rubble now by the onlookers.

Indeed how pathetically have we narrowed down the panorama of life in a mad, bad and sad race of pacing up the living… living too much in a jiffy. 

      
 

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