Hyderabad students’ deaths expose Himachal’s lack of contingency plans

Mandi (Himachal Pradesh) : Delays and a lack of a contingency plan have exposed Himachal Pradesh’s lack of preparedness to a disaster – natural or man-made, said survivors of a disaster where 26 students of a Hyderabad college were washed away on the banks of river Beas.

At least 24 students, including six girls, and a tour operator were reported missing after strong currents in the river in Mandi district, some 200 km from the state capital, washed them away Sunday evening.

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More than 60 students and faculty members from the V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology were on an excursion.

Some of them got off from the bus to get themselves photographed along the rippling river in Thalaut area near the Hanogi Mata temple on the National Highway-21 when they were washed away as the flow in the river intensified owing to release of water from a nearby state-run hydropower project without warning, official sources said.

“The silent river literally turned into a watery grave within a fraction of seconds,” Kiran, one of the survivors and a faculty member, told IANS Monday.

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

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.

For hours the survivors, most of them from the plains, were baffled as nobody from the local administration was there to help them out.

“If the administration reacted immediately, 10 to 15 lives could be saved,” an emotional Kumar said.

According to him, there were no hoardings to warn the tourists not to go near the flowing water.

“Before going into the waters we asked the locals and they said you could go. When the disaster occurred, rather than helping us, they started shouting at us,” Kumar added.

Two teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), comprising deep water divers, were rushed to the spot following a directive from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

The disaster has exposed state’s poor disaster response — rescue, relief distribution and rehabilitation, said an official involved in rescue and rehabilitation operations.

There was no early warning system before the release of excess water, he said.

Several shortcomings surfaced during the crisis.

“There was a total lack of coordination among agencies involved in relief and rescue operations. No nodal officer was appointed at the state level to coordinate and monitor the operations,” said the official.

Second, he said, there was no mechanism for reaching out to the families of the affected people in the shortest possible time.

Third, no senior official in the state headquarters was assigned to brief the media about the rescue and relief efforts.

Aditya, who saved himself, said darkness hampered search operations. “There was no provision of searchlights. The search operation started almost 12 hours after the incident.”

BJP leader and local MP Ram Swaroop Sharma flayed the government for delay in relief operations.

Police data shows that every year five to six deaths involving tourists are reported in and around Manali. However, minor incidents of injuries due to slipping go unreported.

A newly-wed tourist couple from Delhi drowned in the Beas in Manali in September 2008.

Sumit Ranjan, 32, and Swati Sinha, 27, were clicking photographs when Swati slipped into the river. Sumit jumped into the river to save his wife but both were swept away by the strong current, police said.

The current in the Beas river is quite strong these days as glaciers start thawing with a sudden rise in temperatures.

Himachal Pradesh’s economy is highly dependent on tourism.

Kullu-Manali has emerged as a favourite tourist destination, followed by Shimla and Dharamsala.