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Beas report raps ‘carelessness’

Shimla, June 19: Rescue teams searching for a dozen engineering students still missing since they were swept away in the Beas retrieved two more bodies on a day a report laid bare a tale of “carelessness” and lack of coordination behind the tragedy.

The report submitted today by the divisional commissioner of Mandi to Himachal Pradesh High Court said there was no standard operating procedure regarding release of water from dams, but added the students had been warned by local residents through signals and whistles and “could not have drowned” had they not ignored the warnings.

The Virbhadra Singh government had earlier given a clean chit to authorities of Larji dam, from where the sudden release of water had swept away 24 aspiring engineers from Andhra Pradesh and a tour-in-charge on June 8 as they stood in knee-deep water, laughing and clicking pictures.

Twelve bodies have been retrieved so far, including two today and two yesterday.

Eleven days after the tragedy, the inquiry report spoke of decisions taken in “isolation” apart from “systematic failure” and “entrenched faulty” procedures and practices at the Larji hydel project.

“It appears that the official on duty at (the) barrage control room failed to assess the accumulation of water and its quantity, otherwise there was no need to discharge 300 cumecs additional water. It was not an ordinary phenomenon that the reservoir water started touching the bridge on (the) river Beas at Aut and water entered the houses of people living near (the) barrage. It points out the carelessness of the authorities of (the) arbitration and maintenance division,” Onkar Sharma said in his report.

Aut is 8km downstream from the dam and around 5km from the spot where the students were washed away.

The report said the discharge of water was raised from 20 cumecs at 6pm to 50 cumecs at 6.15pm, then 150 cumecs at 6.45pm, and then to 450 cumecs at 7pm.

The divisional commissioner also submitted that the state power authority (SLDC) ordered periodic shedding of load on June 8 evening at the Larji project and the Bhawa hydel project, both run by the government, though the private-run Baspa hydroelectric project was allowed to run at full installed capacity. “The SLDC should have looked into the issue of pro-rata basis load shedding across the state,” the report said.

Had power generation at Larji not been stopped, the wall of water that swept away the 25 tourists would not have been released.

“The officers involved in power house operation and those handling barrage operations are not working in tandem and their decisions are independent and in isolation with each other. The warning system is also inadequate and the authorities never cared to install new hoarding(s) despite (the) knowledge that 8 out of 12 hoardings had been destroyed. All this constitutes a systematic failure due to wrong and entrenched faulty procedure and practices prevalent at the Larji project,” the report said.

The commissioner, however, submitted that the students of Hyderabad’s VNR Vigyan Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology were warned by the local people through signals and whistles and “could not have drowned or (been) washed away” had they not “turned blind towards the information”.

The high court has asked the engineering college to file an affidavit containing details such as who made the decision to allow the students to visit Himachal and whether their parents had been taken into confidence. The division bench of acting Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan also sought the particulars of officials who accompanied the students.

The court directed the Himachal government to file a status report on the steps taken on the inquiry report and fixed the next hearing on June 24.

The two students whose bodies were found today were identified as Ashish Mantha and Macharli Akhil. The bodies of P. Venkta Durga Tarun and M. Subba Prakash Verma were retrieved yesterday.