At least 24 students, including six girls, of an engineering college in Hyderabad were reported missing Sunday after strong currents in the mighty Beas river in Himachal Pradesh's Mandi district washed them away. Their chances of survival were bleak, officials said.
More than 60 students and faculty members from V.N.R. Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology were on an excursion to the picturesque tourist resort of Manali and were getting themselves photographed on the banks of the river in Thalaut area near the Hanogi Mata temple when they were reportedly washed away as the flow in the river suddenly increased, Mandi Deputy Commissioner Devesh Kumar said.
The river was suddenly in spate with the release of water from a nearby hydropower project.
A rescue operation was carried out but no body had yet been fished out. The incident occurred around 7 p.m.
"Suddenly, the water level of the river increased reportedly due to water being released from the Larji hydropower project," said a police official.
He said the students were swept away in the swollen river.
Additional District Magistrate Pankaj Rai said the rescue operation was stopped due to darkness.
"The chances of survival are bleak as the current in the river is very strong. The rescue operation will begin early (Monday) morning."
He also said the water level in the river suddenly rose owing to release of water from the nearby hydropower project.
"It's a matter of inquiry on whether the hydropower project authorities had issued any warning about the release of water," he added.
Official sources said the floodgates of the Pandoh dam located downstream of the accident spot, some 200 km from state capital Shimla and located on the border of Kullu and Mandi districts, was closed to prevent the downstream flow of bodies, if any.
Villagers blocked the national highway after the incident, protesting the release of water by the hydropower authorities without any warning, said a police official.
Rescue workers said the Beas river was in spate due to thawing of glaciers and melting of snow in the higher reaches of Manali.
Witnesses said the administration had a tough time in locating the victims in the river, although villagers and private rafters started rescue operations well before the authorities could reach the spot.
The district administration has made lodging arrangements for the rest of the students at the Hanogi Mata temple.