The tragedy on the Beas River in Himachal Pradesh could have been avoided with simple procedures, writes Canis Lupus

Voices Monday, June 09, 2014 - 05:30
C. Lupus | The News Minute | June 9, 2014 | 12.47 pm C. Lupus writes about the mishap in which tourists went missing after the sluices of the Larji dam in Himachal Pradesh were opened, washing away the tourists. Lupus also points out some basic solutions to avoiding such tragedies in future. The Mishap Sunday, June 8, 2014 saw a grim tragedy at Thalaut, Mandi district, in Himachal Pradesh. A busload of tourists, students of an engineering college in Hyderabad, was on its way to Manali from Shimla. It was evening, but not dark, and some of the students went down to the River Beas a few dozen metres below the highway a short way downstream of Thalaut. The Location  The Larji Dam is located between Larji and Thalaut in the Beas gorge where it narrows down. A kilometer or so downstream the gorge opens up where the small town/large village of Thalaut is located. The water from this dam goes into the sedimentation tanks located inside the mountain on the right bank. From there the water flows through a tunnel through the heart of the mountain a few kilometres downstream to the hydro-electric power plant. This too is in a hollowed-out chamber inside the mountain. The water coming out of the mountain, after driving the turbines, then goes back into the river along the original course. So, between the dam and the power house, the river is almost – though not quite – dry. It presents a tempting sight to hot and tired tourists on the highway. Also animals, local children, fishermen and women washing clothes can often be seen on the river’s sides. Himalayan Rivers These days the hot summer sun causes the snows to melt in the upper reaches. As a result, the river level rises up in the day, rising up gradually till it is highest by late evening. Then the cool nights cause the level to go down, and it is lowest by morning. Depending on how far you are downstream from the glaciers which feed this river, the time lag of the rise and ebb varies. At Thalaut the high water mark is reached these days by about 9.00 pm. The low water mark would be about 10.00 am. Other variables, of course have to be factored in, like a sudden rainfall in the catchment area. What happened? The Larji dam got filled to the high water mark and one or more sluice gates were opened in the evening of June 8. The water rushed down the near-empty river bed and washed away 24 students. Water, when on the move, has a terrific force. The poor victims had scarcely any chance at all. Those who don’t drown, get their bones broken on the rocks. Those who survive these succumb to hypothermia. If anyone survives, that person has an especially watchful guardian angel. Warning, was there one or not?  According to procedures, a siren is supposed to sound three times before the water is released. In theory, this should warn the villagers who are too near the river bed to get out of the way. The Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board, which owns the Larji Hydel Project, says the hooter was indeed sounded. Villagers of Thalaut allege that it did not sound. They felt agitated enough to block the National Highway 21 late last evening. So who is right? If the staff at the dam were negligent and failed to sound the hooter, by now they would have already covered their backsides by making a few entries in a register or two and prepared their story. Another possibility is that the villagers could not hear the hooter, as it is around a bend in the gorge and about 1 Km downstream. Is the hooter enough?  Interestingly, I remember once driving across the Larji dam en route to Sainj and hearing the siren. The significance was lost on me entirely even though I live a mere 30 Km away. I remember thinking, "Funny, they have lunch early today". It had rained all last night in Manali and the level had probably gone up. The strange thing is that this fact only dawned on me after last evening’s mishap. Now what  The authorities are likely to go overboard and fence off the entire river from the main road. I’m not sure but this is how bureaucracy works. The villagers are not likely to be pleased with this and gradually over the years the wires will be stretched, knocked down, become meaningless. But it may be good enough to save some well-paid employees in headquarters. A practical solution The river bed is easily accessible from the road and village for hardly a couple of kilometres. What can be done is: put three or four more hooters connected together, located at suitable intervals. And with easily readable signboards in two languages clearly stating what the hooter means. These boards can be posted at the likely points of access. Another thing, not so hard to do, is to release the water slowly, so that the water rises at about a metre in the first five minutes, then a couple of metres in the next five and so on. This gives anyone (even a donkey) near the water enough warning and time to move out of the way. Tourists come to Himachal to enjoy the rivers and mountains. Why rob them of the pleasure? The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.
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