Fifty-one passengers were killed and 46 injured when an overcrowded private transport bus veered off the road and fell into a 300-foot-deep gorge near Chamba on Saturday morning, police said.

The area has been experiencing heavy rains for the past few days and the road conditions were not good. The accident took place at Gagaala, 11 km from Chamba town, when the driver was negotiating a curve.

While 42 passengers died on the spot, nine died on way to hospital, Sunil Chaudhary, Deputy Commissioner of Chamba said. Nine seriously injured passengers have been referred to the Dr. R .P. Medical College Hospital. Others with minor injuries were admitted to the district hospital, Chamba. Most of the victims were local commuters.

The 42-seater bus was carrying more than 90 people. Some passengers were travelling on the rooftop despite an official ban on the practice. There is a massive shortage of buses in the hills, especially in such backward and remote districts, say locals.

Local residents began rescue operations even before the authorities reached the site. Later, the district administration swung into action and the Home Guard, the ITBP and police personnel were pressed into service. Governor Urmila Singh and Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal have expressed grief at the loss of lives.

The State government announced an ex gratia grant of Rs. 1 lakh to the next of kin of the dead and Rs. 10,000 to those who were injured.

Assembly Speaker Tulsi Ram, who hails from Chamba, and local MLA B.K. Chauhan supervised the rescue operations.

A mob at the site damaged the official car of the MLA. They complained that private operators were plying old and rickety buses and no efforts were being made by the government to check overloading.

The government ordered an inquiry by an officer of the rank of Additional District Magistrate into the accident.