25 students washed away in fresh Himalayan disaster; 5 bodies found

09 June 2014

The bodies of five of the 25 engineering students and a teacher washed away by a flash flood at a hydroelectric dam on the Beas River in Himachal Pradesh's Mandi district, while the search continues for the others, state officials said.

The toll in Sunday's accident could rise as the chance of recovering any survivor is bleak, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police Pankaj Rai said.

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh ordered a magisterial inquiry and the suspension of the Resident Engineer of the Larji hydropower project.

The union home ministry has sought a report from the state on the incident in which the 25 students, who were taking photographs on the bank of Beas, were washed away on Sunday evening when the discharge of water in the river suddenly increased due to release of water from the reservoir of 126 MW Larji hydropower project.

Teams of the Seema Surakhsa Bal, along with the police, home guard and local divers and rafters, intensified search operations in the area from Thalout to Pandoh Dam.

Rai said one of the bodies was recovered from Pandoh Dam, whose floodgates were closed after the accident. The dam is some 15 km downstream from the accident spot.

Earlier, there was the usual confusion on the number of bodies being recovered. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said in a statement that five bodies have been found, while state authorities said that four bodies were found.

The accident spot is located some 200 km from state capital Shimla, on the border of Kullu and Mandi districts which are popular among tourists both Indian and international.

"The silent river literally turned into a watery grave within a fraction of seconds," Kiran, one of the survivors and a faculty member of the V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology in Hyderabad, told IANS.

The survivors said they were baffled after the disaster as nobody from the local administration was there to help them out.

Kiran said the students, who were on the way to picturesque tourist resort Manali, were clicking pictures on the bank of the Beas river when the disaster occurred.

At least 24 students, including six girls, of the institute and one tour operator were reported missing.

More than 60 students and faculty members were on an excursion to Manali. Some of them were getting themselves photographed on the bank of the river in Thalaut area near Hanogi Mata temple when the sudden rush of water washed them away.

The river level suddenly increased due to release of water from the hydropower project's dam without warning, eye witnesses said.

Another survivor, Ravi Kumar said: "The water level suddenly rose to five or six feet and the students who were close to the river were washed away."

He said no help came from the district administration for hours. "If the administration had reacted immediately, 10 to 15 lives could have been saved," an emotional Kumar said.

State callousness again

In the kind of crassly callous response to human tragedies that marks India's state leaders, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh said that though the Manali tragedy was ''shocking and unfortunate'', the tutors may have been to blame.

Though he said he ''didn't blame anyone'', he insinuated that the teachers guiding the students had acted irresponsibly, as they should have stopped the students from getting too close to the water.

He said nothing about the irresponsibility of building dams on Himalayan rivers with no environmental checks in place.

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