The 24 engineering students from Hyderabad and their tour operator died of asphyxia, hypothermia and head injuries within two minutes of being washed away in the boulder-ridden Beas river on June 24 after floodgates of the Larji dam near Mandi opened without warning.
In his inquiry report to the Himachal Pradesh high court, Mandi divisional commissioner Onkar Sharma has stated the causes of death as confirmed in autopsy. The accident scene is full of boulders up to a kilometre downstream and the water discharge at that time was 450 cusecs. “Against strong current and huge rocks, the students could not have survived for more than two minutes,” reads the report.
It says that even the Thalout locals who had cautioned the students against going to the river did not hear any warning hooter before the dam gates opened. “The sound of the passing vehicles was louder. Had the students heeded to the whistling signals of locals, they would have been saved,” Sharma stated in the document.
He called for installing hooters that sounded different from the usual sirens announcing emergency vehicles and official cars that are common on the road to the tourist resort of Manali. The report mentions that visitors can’t distinguish the sound but the locals can because they have lived near the dam longer.
Warning through publicaddress systems should be for every 30 minutes before the water is released, says the report, stressing upon evolving “first listen and then sound” policy. “Interlink all hooters to blare in sync,” it adds, mentioning the warning systems in Goa to be worth adopting.
“Patrol riversides or riverbeds on loudspeaker-mounted jeeps until the place is clear,” said the report, suggesting that mining on the riverbed or riverside be stopped and the temporary roads to the mining sites closed. On June 3, four cases of illegal extraction of silt were detected at Thalout.
“Since April, 20 have been reported, besides 20 warnings issued to illegal miners,” states the report, calling for proactive stance from the forest and industries department to stop the construction of illegal roads along riversides.
Better coordination is sought between the state load dispatch centre and the northern region load dispatch centre. There is no standard operating procedure for the release of water from the barrage as of now.
The officers in the powerhouse and those operating the barrage do not work in tandem and their decisions are in isolation. The warning system is inadequate and authorities never cared to reinstall warning signs after 8 of 12 were damaged. “All this points to a systematic failure because of wrong and entrenched procedure at the Larji dam project,” the report concludes.
The spot is full of boulders up to a kilometre downstream and the water discharge at that time was 450 cusecs. Against strong current and huge rocks, the students had no chance of surviving No one heard any hooter before the dam gates opened; sound not distinct from the usual sirens announcing emergency vehicles, official cars Illegal extraction of silt common at Thalout; approach roads to riverbed cut No standard operating procedure for release of water; and officers at powerhouse, barrage don’t work in tandem.