Students Washed Away by Manmade Flood in India

Bharat Lal Seth

In early June, a group of nearly fifty visiting engineering students walked down to the Beas River in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh where many large boulders jutted out over the water near the banks. Upon seeing the rippling seemingly shallow river, the students visiting from the plains of South India excitedly hopped across and on to the boulders to get photographed near the cool snowmelt waters. But before they were ready to move on, the students were ambushed by a sudden 4 to 6 foot rise in water levels. They failed to get back to the safety of the riverbank and within seconds the protruding boulders were submerged and the gushing river swallowed 24 students and their guide in its sudden turbulent flow.

A blurry still from the video that captured the Larji dam tragedy
Students perilously perched on boulders in a blurry still from the video that captured the Larji Dam tragedy.

A distant video taken from the road above captured the tragedy. News reports started streaming in that the sudden surge of water was a result of opening the floodgates of the 126-megawatt Larji hydroelectric project, three kilometers upstream. The surviving students, faculty and other eyewitnesses claimed there were no warning signals as mandated and no warning bell sounded before the high volume release. Two resident engineers and a dam operator were suspended from duty, although officials denied negligence on their part. 

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs deployed more than 500 rescue workers including personnel from the armed forces to trace the missing students. Many who were submerged by the river were found wedged under boulders or sunk and trapped in the silt. As of June 22, eight bodies were still missing two weeks after the incident. The search continues in a stretch of river downstream before the Pandoh Dam.

As the rescue teams continued their search for the bodies, the High Court set out to ascertain any carelessness on the part of the dam authorities. Why did the water levels rise 4 to 6 feet in a matter of seconds? Many probable theories were discussed on talk shows and online blogs, including intense rains in the upper catchment, high snowmelt during a hot summer day, electrical fault and forced shutdown of turbines, or low power demand that led to accumulation of water in the dam reservoir.

The Beas river characteristically has protruding boulders accessible from the riverbank
The Beas River near the site of the tragedy has protruding boulders accessible from its banks.
Ashwin Bahulkar

According to information submitted to the High Court, a dip in energy demand led to production being curtailed to less than a third of capacity. The logbook revealed that the dam gates were opened in 29 intervals in an 18-hour span of time beginning an hour past midnight on June 8. According to a status report submitted to the High Court by Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board Ltd, operator of the project, a total of 2,820 cubic meters of water was released to protect the dam structure. It is reported that a ramped up 450 cubic meters release in the evening led to the tradegy – given the travel time between the two sites. However, the status report and internal inquiry by the operator predictably absolves itself of any negligence.

Meanwhile the deputy commissioner of the district conducted a site visit and submitted a report to the High court on June 19. The report concluded that the officials at the Larji Dam could not properly assess the accumulation of water in the reservoir. The report also mentioned non-existent standard operating procedures. No warning systems were found installed at the site and there were reportedly no notice boards warning visitors of fluctuation in water levels. The regional media however reported that existing sirens could issue a warning of discharge from floodgates up to five kilometers downstream. The incident took place three kilometers downstream of the dam.

It is believed that two of the state government owned projects including the Larji hydroelectric project were ordered to reduce generation, which led to the accumulation of water in reservoir. But the inquiry report questioned why a privately owned 300 MW project was allowed to run at full capacity and load shedding was not proportional among projects. The private operators looking for returns on their investments ensure that their turbines function at or near to capacity at all times. If there was a pro-rata sharing in load shedding the tragedy could have been avoided. 

On June 9, the day after the tragedy, I had a premonition. I tweeted (@lalseth): “Hope the water resource engineers don't build fences to stop people from going to the river…” The next day the Chief Minister announced a red-herring plan to fence off a two to three km stretch downstream of all dams in the state. Necessary discussions regarding run-of-river project operations, generation of peaking power and daily occurrence of flood and drought and mismanagement of dam reservoirs have been conveniently sidestepped. These issues, which have serious implications for biodiversity and downstream communities, need to be addressed.

The National Alliance for People’s Movement, a coalition of activists and organizations released a statement: “Incidents like this keep happening and our systems to manage dam gates, water release, warning systems, upkeep of dam and so on continue to be neglected and unplanned in absence of monitoring from Central Water Commission or Ministry of Environment and Forests.” Given the hundreds of existing as well as under construction hydroelectric projects in the state, such apathy by officals has turned rivers in to death traps. A recent blog enumerated various such incidents that have taken place in the past decade or so. This is a serious matter in need of deliberation and solutions beyond the issue of sirens (although much needed) and the ludicrous idea of fencing off rivers.

The lack of executive decisions is driving the judiciary to pursue this case further – there has not been a single statement from the Union Water Resources Ministry or its technical wing the Central Water Commission on the tragedy. The Court has directed the State government to file a status report on the steps taken by the authorities. They expect a detailed response to the on-site examination and daming report by the district commissioner. After all, the safety and accessibility of our rivers is at stake. Hasty solutions – like fencing off a river – will do little to mitigate the true underlying problem that better management and communication is sorely needed. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014