Shimla: Himachal Pradesh on Sunday admitted that illegal sand mining has been flourishing along the Beas river and the activity is to be partially blamed for the tragedy in which 24 students of an engineering college of Hyderabad lost their lives.
State Industries Minister Mukesh Agnihotri visited the accident spot and the directed the authorities concerned to close link roads along the river constructed for illegal mining.
"The industries minister directed the public works and forest departments and the Larji project management to close down within seven days all the link roads constructed to carry out illegal mining activities in the Beas river," an official statement said.
The minister also gave directions to the Larji management to ban dumping within the limits of project areas and asked the mining department to take effective steps for banning illegal mining.
Official sources told IANS that various big and small road inlets have been made by the sand mafia along the national highway 21 in Mandi and Kullu districts to reach the riverbank.
Even at the accident site in Thalot in Mandi district, a majority of engineering college students, who were on a holiday trip to Manali, used one of these roads before they were caught unawares last Sunday.
"The students, after descending from the main road, reached the bank of the river by using one such path made by the mining mafia for plying tractor-trailers," said an official.
Even a hair-raising video, which was shot by a local, showed a tractor-trailer loaded with sand plying in the area when a strong upsurge in the river water carried the students away.
The video, now on YouTube, showed the students standing on the boulders in the riverbed for a picture-postcard shoot with the gurgling river in the background, and then a wall of water suddenly pushing the screaming and howling victims away.
Official sources said the sand and mining mafia was hand in glove with officials of the hydropower project for opening the gates in one go, instead of releasing the water in stages. With a fast discharge of a big volume of water, the sand settles on the riverbed, dries up instantly and is collected by the mafia.
The video showed that the students who were standing on small rocks drowned first. Other students standing on a big boulder saw their friends being washed away, and desperately tried to save themselves but to no avail.
Bodies of eight of the 24 missing students were recovered and were flown back to their hometown Hyderabad. More than 60 students and faculty members of the VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology in Hyderabad were on the excursion.
"The river level suddenly increased due to release of water from the Larji hydropower project dam, located near the accident spot, without warning," witnesses said.
The police have registered a case against the hydropower project authorities for causing death by negligence and endangering life of others.