Could clear loudspeaker warnings, prominent caution signs or vigilance about the tour itinerary have averted the tragic death of 24 students in the Beas River? Here is an RTI guideline for parents to procure more information into such deaths
With every passing day since 9th June, when 24 students of VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology in Hyderabad and one tour operator were washed away in the River Beas off the Kulu-Manali Highway, it is becoming clearer that authorities of the Larji Dam Project run by the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB) cannot wash their hands of this tragedy so easily. Nor can the district administration, which allegedly did not have the required rescue equipment and Quick Response Teams (QRTs) in place to immediately launch rescue operations. Also, college authorities need to answer on the nature of the tour, which was officially termed an 'industrial study tour' as alleged by the parents.
The latest news is that, despite more than 75 personnel of the National Disaster Management Board being engaged in intense search for the bodies, only six bodies have been recovered so far. As per news reports, the parents of the 24 students (one of the dead is the tour manager) who have unfortunately lost their lives, have decided to unanimously file a suit against the HPSEB authorities as well as the College authorities.
It is a good move from the parents’ side, not to let the alleged culprits go scot free. The least they can do is to ensure that the public authorities are punished under the law and the government immediately puts in place stringent norms for release of water from dams.
We have seen in the Korea ship disaster where over 170 students were killed last month, when the ship they were sailing in capsized, the captain was immediately arrested and one of the highest constitutional authorities resigned. Here, three officials of the Lajri dam have merely been suspended.
So, how could parents of these 25 students get armed with information to fight a solid battle? Procuring information under Right to Information (RTI) Act in order to strengthen their case could play a crucial role in their campaign. Here are a few guidelines:
• Information should be sought from HPSEB, which is the public authority and Larji Dam is under its command
• Information should be procured also from the Mandi district administration regarding rescue operations and safety measures for tourists
• Information should be sought from the VNR College authorities about the nature of the study tour and guidelines involved for the faculty and students in the tour
• Information from all these three public authorities, should be sought under Section 7 (1) which states that the applicant should get information within 48 hours (Provided that where the information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the same shall be provided within 48 hours of the receipt of the request.)
• Information to be asked for from the HPSEB would be:
Copy of the rules and regulations of release of water from the Larji Dam
Copy of warning signals to be issued to public before release of water or/and internal correspondence pertaining to the same
Who are the officers responsible for release of water from the Larji dam
Action, if any, taken since 2011, regarding negligence of these officers in release water
Copy of the rules of action against criminal negligence of safety in release of water from the Larji dam
Correspondence of citizens and citizen organizations regarding complaints of release of water that is threatening the lives of nearby residents and tourists the number of times, with timings, dates, days and months since January 2014 when water was released downstream into the Larji Dam. Please furnish this information, month-wise.
Preliminary Report of the June 9 tragedy wherein 24 students including the tour manager were swept away by sudden gush of water that was released.
Copy of the rules and regulations under which the affected families whose children were drowned can seek compensation;
• Information to be asked for, from the Mandi district administration:
Copy of the Disaster Management Plan Details of the Quick Response Team (QRTs) in terms of the number of personnel, the number and the nature of equipment to rescue victims swept away in the river Rules and codes for QRT personnel;
copies of reports of all such rescue operations from 1 January 2014
Any action taken report on negligence in rescue operations since January 2014
Copies of reports of conflict with residents who protested against sudden release of water
• Information to be asked for, from the VNR College authorities:
Copy of the document which sanctions such a study tour
What was the name and nature of the study tour which ended in a tragedy, with details of the entire day to day itinerary;
copy of rules and regulations for students and faculty attending this study tour to Manali
Copy of Preliminary Report by the college, if any, after the 9th June tragedy
Names of officials/faculty responsible for deviation in the Manali tour, if any.
• Parents should also register online complaints on the grievance cell website: Log on to www.pgportal.gov.in . Locate the appropriate authority and lodge a complaint. The website is very citizen friendly.
• Also read the experiences of this tourist, who along with his friends would have met with the same fate, thus showing that the criminal negligence of authorities has been going on for far too long: http://vks1000.expertscolumn.com/article/24-young-lives-could-have-been-saved
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)