Shimla, June 14 - Twenty-four students of a Hyderabad engineering college died in the glacial-fed Beas river, with most of their bodies still to be recovered. But Himachal Pradesh, it seems, has learnt little from the tragedy that caught worldwide attention.
Tourists in hordes trickling into the hills of Himachal Pradesh during the vacation season continue to be vulnerable in the absence of a larger safety and security system. Official sources said a large stretch of the Satluj, Beas, Yamuna, Chenab and Ravi rivers and their tributaries run parallel to national and state highways where fatal fall incidents involving tourists are not uncommon.
But still there are no warning signs or any drive initiated by the state tourism department to educate the tourists, the bread and butter of the state hospitality industry, about the threat perception.
Besides Sunday's incident, police data shows that every year, five to six deaths involving tourists are reported in and around Manali alone. However, minor incidents of injuries due to slipping often go unreported.
Most of the time the tourists, mainly from the plains who are not familiar with the local topography, get attracted to rippling streams or rivers. They enter the water without estimating that a sudden strong current could wash them away in seconds, M.C. Thakur, a prominent tour operator based in Manali, told IANS.
He said fatal fall incidents involving tourists are greater in the 50-km stretch between Bhuntar and Manali and the 65-km stretch between Bhuntar and Manikaran. Both the stretches fall in the Kullu-Manali region, which is a favourite tourist destination.
Sunday's tragedy occurred when a wall of water washed away 24 students of Hyderabad's V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology. They were standing on the boulders in the riverbed for a picture-postcard shoot when the water was released into the river without a warning from a nearby hydropower project.
More than 60 students and faculty members from the institute were on an excursion to Manali when the incident occurred.
Most of the hydropower projects in the state are the run-of-the-river types. They regularly release water, both during generation and surplus, into the rivers, said an official of the state electricity department.
We have noticed that often tourists are allured by their travel agents by showing them photos that this is the right place to enjoy nature, without forewarning them about the threat perceptions, said an official of the tourism department.
He cited a case in which over 200 tourists, mostly from West Bengal, remained stranded in the picturesque Sangla Valley for more than a fortnight in June last year when incessant rainfall triggered massive landslides that blocked many roads in Kinnaur district.
Official said the tourists started making frantic calls to the chief minister's offices in both Shimla and Kolkata after they were stranded. They were finally airlifted.
Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh said the state is drawing up a comprehensive plan to avert such incidents.
Besides putting up proper warning boards, the sensitive areas are being covered with barbed wire, he said in a statement.
Virbhadra Singh said the locals had advised the Hyderabad students not to venture in the Beas river as water flow rose steeply in the evening due to melting of glaciers, but they ignored the warning.
The chief minister said directions have been given to managements of all hydropower projects to follow necessary steps before releasing the water, which included the use of hooters and announcements through vehicles.
The deputy commissioners of Kullu and Mandi have been asked to prevent unauthorized tourism and commercial activities along the river besides closing the unauthorized ways, the statement said.
The state economy is highly dependent on hydroelectric power, horticulture and tourism.
Himachal Pradesh, known for its delicious apples, a World Heritage railway and picture-perfect tourist spots, attracted 16.1 million tourists, including 497,850 foreigners in 2012-13, a state tourism department report said.
At present, 2,769 hotels with a 61,497-bed capacity are registered with the state, it said.
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