Man-made and natural floods take too many lives; we need to see the lessons

It was with a sense of disbelief and chilling deja vu that I read about and watched the heart-rending scenes from the June 8 tragedy in Manali where 24 engineering students were washed away in sudden flooding in the Beas in Himachal Pradesh. My mind went back to 1981 when a similar group of engineering students — who were my brother’s friends — went to the Veli lake in Thiruvananthapuram to celebrate the completion of their final year examinations, which ended in tragedy.

While playing in the water, one of them drowned in the silted lake-bed right in front of his friends. He had jumped in and, losing his grip on his life-buoy, fell through the ring and sank to the bottom of the lake. They were not even too far out in the lake, nor was the water too deep. But no one had diving skills, and they had no idea of the silt at the bottom. If you got stuck there, it was not possible to pull you out unless skilled divers were around. Everyone who knew him was in shock and pain for a long time, and I wonder if his parents ever recovered from the shock.

This sort of freak accidents around rivers and water bodies has become common in India. It could happen to anyone, especially youngsters, who find water bodies irresistible. Just like the calm and placid Veli lake, the beautiful snow-fed Beas river beckoned these youngsters from an Andhra Pradesh engineering college to play in the seemingly shallow waters dotted with pretty boulders.

You see a calm river, just one or two feet deep, and plenty of rocks to climb onto, and any of us would be tempted to play. That is what these unsuspecting young people did in Manali on a pleasure trip. One minute they were standing on the rocks, clicking pictures, probably for Facebook, and in the next two to three minutes, flash floods washed them away. Not all the bodies have been recovered. Apparently excess water was released from the dam and the authorities claim the sirens sounded before the floodgates were opened.

Cold hands wrapped around my heart when I watched a chilling video recording of the catastrophe that I found on the Internet. So many disturbing questions came to mind. Had the authorities really sounded the siren? Would the siren have been audible along this stretch of the river? If they did hear the siren, would tourists from another State who were on totally unfamiliar terrain have understood its significance?

Can you really blame the dam authorities? It has been stated that there is an 18-km stretch till the next dam and that the authorities are not expected to check the entire stretch to see if people are in the river.

The tour guide was reportedly in the water too. Did he have sufficient knowledge about the local terrain and the possibility of danger lurking round the corner? Sadly, he too got washed away.

What about the teachers who accompanied the group? Should they have checked the safety factors before embarking on the tour and permitting the students into the water? One of the teachers too got washed away.

Were there any signs on the banks of the river, warning people to keep out? If there were indeed signs, did the students and teachers ignore the warnings? The Beas is a major river, not a stream.

We hear of a tourist spot, and we pack our bags readily and set off there. Do we collect any background information about the location? My sister who was a primary school teacher in the United Kingdom went along with another teacher to study the entire location to collect facts and details a month before they took a batch of their students to the seaside on a school trip. Do we do any kind of checks here?

So many unanswered questions make me fear this may happen again and again, unless we exercise caution. Until we find some answers, the best policy will be to keep out of all water bodies since it seems to be a murky scenario, pretty much like the state of the river during floods. Man-made and natural floods have taken too many lives in India.

Exploration of rivers and river beds is best left to adventure-seekers and marine experts. Students on school and college trips could plan their fun and games in less dangerous terrain, away from rivers and lakes, however scenic and calm they may look.

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