At least 24 students from Hyderabad were swept away and feared drowned in the river Beas while on an excursion trip at Thalaut, around 40km from district headquarters Mandi, on Sunday. The accident that occurred around 6.45pm was blamed on the unannounced release of water from the reservoir of a hydel power project near the site.
In all, around 35 of the group of 49 students from a private engineering institute in Hyderabad were on the riverbanks, clicking photographs of their summer sojourn, when the level rose after water was released from the state-owned Larji power project around 2km away. Eighteen boys and six girls, apparently in their late teens, were reported missing, said superintendent of police RS Negi. Their identities could not be determined as the survivors were in shock and could not talk at length.
Soon after the mishap, villagers in the area put up a traffic blockade in protest, accusing the project authority of releasing water without warning. This led to a traffic jam and also delayed rescue work, which could not be started as it turned dark. The SP said the search and rescue would start at 5am on Monday.
Transport minister GS Bali told a news agency in Shimla that rescue workers using torches were attempting to find the students in the Kullu valley, around 200km north of state capital Shimla.
Additional deputy commissioner Pankaj Roi told HT that teams from Mandi and Kullu reached the spot. Sources said these teams reached only around 9pm, and the operation never began as divers could not enter the river due to lack of lighting and the rapid flow. The administration issued a red alert, and the rescue teams comprised the police, home guards, fire brigades and health department officials.
As for any culpability, ADC Roi said, "We assured the villagers that there will be a proper inquiry, and action will be taken if anyone is found guilty of releasing water unannounced." The 126-MW Larji project is run by the state-owned Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board Limited (HPSEBL). Authorities of the board could not be contacted for comment.
Thalaut is on the Chandigarh-Manali National Highway-21 and falls under Aut police station. The students were travelling in luxury buses, sources said, and were returning to Chandigarh or Delhi from Kullu. They are from VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering, established in 1995 by a non-profit society, at Hyderabad.
'Someone tried to alert… but it was too late'
One of the survivors, Raman Teja, a 20-year-old BTech student of the institute, told HT over the phone that at least 35 students were on riverbanks clicking photographs. "And some of us were very close to the water. Suddenly, a local man nearby tried to alert us, and shouted, 'Dam gates have been opened, run away'. But his voice and the water hit my friends simultaneously, and they could not run away." He said the students were all from Hyderabad and nearby places.