On January 8, 1960, at the town of Aswan in southern Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nassar of the United Arab Republic formally initiated construction of the Aswan High Dam. In front of a crowd of foreign dignitaries flown in from Cairo for the occasion, Nassar pushed a button to trigger charges of dynamite along the river half a mile away. The resulting explosions began to open the first diversion canal for the waters of the Nile. The Soviet Union, which had financed the construction of the dam with a starting loan of $93 million, was represented at the festivities by Ignati T. Novakov, the Soviet Minister of Electric Power Station Construction. The total cost for the 12,500-ft dam was then estimated at $1 billion.1
The next day, 3600 miles away, a similar scene played out in the Khasi Hills of northeast India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on a three-day tour of the northeastern state of Assam, dedicated the construction of the Barapani Hydroelectric Project on the Umiam River. Like Nasser, Nehru pushed a button to set off the first explosive charge of the project. Scheduled for completion in 1963, the project included a 580-ft concrete dam and two earthen dams designed to create a reservoir in a ravine of the Umiam River.2
The Aswan High Dam justifiably attracted international attention from the project’s inception in the 1950s. Nasser promoted the dam as a symbol of postcolonial Egypt’s entry into the modern age. The project was—and still is—famous as a major engineering work; modern technology had finally gained the ability to tame the ancient caprices of the Nile. The project also gained notoriety for displacing local populations by flooding their homelands, and for inundating ancient Egyptian cultural sites. UNESCO launched a publicized, and ultimately successful, attempt to cut apart and relocate the monument of Abu Simbel, but other unexplored cultural sites were lost under the Nile.
By comparison, the Barapani or Umiam project received mostly local attention, as it was just one of scores of dam projects initiated during Nehru’s tenure as prime minister. The river Umiam was little-known outside of northeast India, and the project was comparatively small. Nevertheless, the Umiam project reveals much about its time period. The project brings together many recurring themes of the industrialization of India during the Nehru era. These include transfer of technological artifacts from highly-developed nations (in this case, the United States and Japan) to India; transfer of technological expertise to India; displacement of local populations by development projects imposed by societal elites; and the need for foreign funds to build the dam. Unlike Aswan High Dam, Umiam Dam was financed almost completely by American capital, in the form of PL-480 and DLF loans. (These were later consolidated under USAID – the United States Agency for International Development.) The Umiam project was one of the first Indian development projects financed to such a large degree by American capital. The Barapani Hydroelectric Project illustrates how development projects in Nehru’s India used foreign capital and equipment to create new Indian technologies.
(In the next post I will describe the Umiam project in detail.)