The Himachal Pradesh government seems to be finding itself on slippery wicket in the Beas river tragedy - in which 24 students of a Hyderabad engineering college were washed away - with the high court playing it tough.
From day one, the court made it clear that the government's callousness that led to the tragedy would not be tolerated. At the same time, it has shown the humanitarian side of law by sharing the plight of the parents.
Official sources said ever since the high court took suo motu cognisance of the incident that occurred in Mandi district June 8, it has virtually rapped the government on its knuckle on each and every day about the status report that explains the cause of the accident and the steps the government has initiated to prevent such incidents in future.
The development is significant as the court is not only looking at the legal aspects but also going ahead with a foolproof system to prevent the reccurence of such incidents, a senior official admitted.
"We are of the considered view that, prima facie, there is evidence for holding that officials/officers have performed their duties negligently and because of their utter carelessness, callousness and negligence, 24 budding engineers have lost their lives," a division bench of chief justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan observed Wednesday.
Ordering interim compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the 24 students, the judges said that of this, half would be paid by the state-run 126 MW Larji hydropower project, responsible for suddenly releasing water into the river - which caught the students unawares - and the balance by Hyderabad's VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology.
"They (the aggrieved parents) are on thorns and the incident is pricking them every second. We are conscious that money is not a substitute, but may be just to ameliorate their pains and sufferings," the court ruled.
The court, while allowing the criminal probe to continue, also made it clear that it would monitor its progress.
Anguished over the status report filed by the state into the incident at its earlier hearing June 16, the high court asked the divisional commissioner, who was asked by the state to conduct the probe, to appear personally in court and submit his inquiry report.
"The status report does disclose the steps taken by the state to trace the bodies and has also tried to explain the cause of the accident, but it leads nowhere," the bench said.
In his inquiry report, divisional commissioner Onkar Sharma informed the court June 19 that there was a systemic failure in releasing water into the river by the Largi project authorities - and the warning system itself was inadequate.
On the reason for the tragedy, the court said it was not only a case of callousness but also of grave negligence.
"It's a sad tale by reason of the fact that the sheer fun of the young students turned out to be fatal as a consequence of utter and callous negligence of the power project authorities," justice Chauhan said.
"In case the water has been discharged without any warning as alleged, then prima facie it is established that it is not only a case of callousness but a case of grave negligence on the part of the project authorities," he observed.
The chief secretary informed the court that 17 bodies had been recovered so far and it has been decided to continue with the search operation till the remaining bodies are found.
The court, which will hear the matter July 9, again asked the government to file the status report, which includes steps the government has taken and is intending to take in compliance with the divisional commissioner report.