Rescue teams on Monday fished out the bodies of five Hyderabad-based engineering students, who were swept away in the Beas river at Thalaut in Kullu district by the sudden surge of water released from the reservoir of a power project on Sunday. The fate of 19 other students and a tour operator, who were also washed away, is still unknown.
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A massive search-and-rescue operation involving 500 rescuers, rafters and deep divers from the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), Himachal Police and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was underway for the missing persons as Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh ordered a high-level inquiry and placed two engineers of the 126-MW Larji hydroelectric power project under suspension.
The Himachal Pradesh high court also took suo motu cognisance of the “grave negligence” on the part of the project authorities, directing the state government to file a status report on the disturbing incident within seven days.
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Of the five bodies (three girls and two boys) pulled out from the Beas, four have been identified as Akula Vijehtha, Banothu Ram Babu, Gampala Aishwarya and Lakshmi Gaythri Appanbhotla. There is no trace of others so far and the authorities feared the worst, describing chances of survival of the remaining missing persons as slim. The rescue teams, which resumed their search operations at 5am on Monday, are looking for the missing persons in a 15-km stretch from the spot at Thalaut to Pandoh dam, where the water gates had been closed on Sunday.
READ: ‘My students were crying for help and got swept away by gushing waters’
Though 24 students, including six girls, of the VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology, Hyderabad, were washed away at 6.45pm on Sunday, search operations were delayed. While the local authorities and rescue teams arrived late, they also lacked logistic support, searchlights and other equipment, without which search operations were not possible at night. The river depth and silt deposits also posed problems to divers in carrying out a concerted search operation. Though locals said the water level swelled after the project staff opened the water gates of the dam without giving any warning signal or siren, the authorities claimed to have followed due procedure.
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PROBE ORDERED, LARJI ENGINEERS SUSPENDED
Under fire over the release of water by the dam authorities without a warning siren and the delay in rescue operations, the state government has suspended three officials, including two engineers, of the hydel power project and ordered an inquiry into the tragedy by the divisional commissioner, Mandi, Onkar Sharma. He has been directed to give his report within 15 days. Those placed under suspension are senior executive engineer (maintenance) MS Dadwalia, resident engineer Mandeep Singh and fitter Harbans Lal.
Virbhadra Singh, who ordered the inquiry, said a first information report (FIR) had been registered against the dam authorities and action would be taken after the inquiry. “The report will reveal whether it was necessary to release water at that time or not and whether it could have been delayed,” he said.
“I have been told that if water had not been released, it could have damaged the dam. I understand dam safety is important, but human lives are more important than that.”
The CM also said that he had issued instructions for fencing the bank of the Beas from the Larji project to Thalaut area, especially at points where people could reach the river easily. “I remember there was fencing at that point earlier. The deputy commissioner has been asked to look into the case of theft of government property, including railing, notice board and fencing,” he added.
ALERT SYSTEM WORKING: CM
On the alleged lapse of the dam authorities that proved fatal for the students, the CM defended them, saying that the alert system was perfect and working, but people ignored the warning sometimes. Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani, who visited the spot to oversee the search-and-rescue operations, promised all help to the state government and said that the Centre would take action on the finding of the inquiry committee to make sure such mishaps were not repeated.
“A government primary school is also running at the left bank of river Beas and a similar incident could happen there in future,” the minister warned, quoting the locals she spoke to during her visit. Meanwhile, the district administration made arrangements for the stay of survivors, other students and faculty members at a hotel in Mandi. The local helpline number is 01905-223374.