Drowning of 24 students: Himachal HC shows humane side of law

Shimla, Jan 3 (IANS) Airing anguish over callousness of the state that led to the drowning of 24 budding engineers of a Hyderabad college, the Himachal Pradesh High Court has also shown the humanitarian side of law by sharing the plight of the parents.

It has virtually slammed the government in each and every hearing over the past 18 months of the accident about its cause and the steps it has initiated to prevent such incidents in the future.

Describing the death of the students shocking and shattering for everyone, the high court in its 111-page judgment delivered on Saturday observed that awarding of Rs.20 lakh compensation each to the families of 24 students may not redress their grievances but may be a solace.

The 24 students of the V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology in Hyderabad and a tour operator were swept away June 8, 2014, near Mandi town after water from a nearby state-run 126-MW Larji hydropower project dam was released without a warning. The students were on excursion to Manali.

“Unfortunately, their (the students’) bright future stands snatched away, rather cut short, and the parents stand deprived of the said source/income, hope and help in old age,” a division bench of Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan observed.

The students, who were standing on boulders in Beas river for a picture-postcard shoot, were caught unawares by the strong current which washed them away.

Blaming the state for the callousness in preventing the accident, the court said it was also the duty of the state to monitor the functioning of the projects.

“They (government functionaries) had not taken due care and precaution, not to speak of their negligence and recklessness.”

The place of accident was unknown to the students, who were on tour, said the judges.

“Had the authorities put boards, hoardings, sirens, signals and taken precautions at the relevant time, while discharging the water from the barrage, the incident would have been avoided and the precious lives would have been saved.”

In his inquiry report, divisional commissioner Onkar Sharma had informed the court that there was a systemic failure in releasing water into the river by the project authorities – and the warning system itself was inadequate.

“Snatching the young engineering students from their parents and their earning capacity are to be kept in mind while assessing the just compensation,” said the division bench.

The students, the court observed, after obtaining engineering degree would have got better placements. It is known to everyone that an engineer would have been earning not less than about Rs.10 lakh per annum.

Blaming the engineering college too for its lapses, the judges said the unfortunate students were on excursion and the role of the college authorities was also important.

“They should have ascertained all facts, including the circumstances and other factors prevailing in the area, where they were planning to visit.”

At the same time, it was the duty of the state to see whether the boards and other authorities working under it were functioning and discharging duties properly.

“It has failed to do so. Thus the state is also, prima facie, liable,” observed the bench, which treated a media report into the accident as a public interest litigation.

The court directed the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board Ltd., the college and the Himachal state to share the compensation in the ratio of 60:30:10 respectively. It directed them to make the payment within eight weeks.

It earlier awarded an interim relief of Rs.500,000, which would be adjusted against the total compensation.

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