At least 12 schoolchildren, in the age group of 10-13 years, and two teachers died after a boat overturned in Harni Lake of Gujarat’s Vadodara, during a school picnic on Thursday. An FIR was filed against 18 people in connection with the incident, including employees of the company running the boating facility and the boat operator, while three have been arrested so far. The deceased were part of a group of 64 people, including 60 students. Eighteen students and two teachers were rescued after the capsize. On Friday, the Vadodara police formed a high-level probe panel to investigate allegations of negligence.
According to officials, the students from New Sunrise School were taken out on a school picnic and had arrived at the spot at about 4.30 pm on Thursday. A total of 60 students were part of the excursion, as per available information. While the boat had a capacity to carry 16 passengers, police said it had 34 occupants — 30 students and four teachers — at the time of the incident.
“The children arrived at the lake at 4.30 pm and, accompanied by their teachers, boarded the boat… In case of children drowning, even a delay of two or three minutes underwater can result in death,” said Vadodara Municipal Corporation’s (VMC) standing committee chairperson, Dr Sheetal Mistry.
Boating facility owner booked for negligence
The boating facility at Harni Lake, called Lake Zone, is run by a private company called Kotia Projects, under a Public Private Partnership contract with the VMC after a beautification project in 2016.
Police said two people, including the manager of the facility, have been arrested. An FIR was lodged at the Harni police station against M/s Kotia Projects, under IPC Sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 308 (attempt to culpable homicide), and 337 (rash or negligent act endangering human life).
Deputy Commissioner of Police Panna Momaya confirmed that an FIR has been lodged against M/s Kotia Projects, including its owner.
In an order issued at night, the state home department ordered an inquiry headed by the Vadodara District Magistrate. Besides probing the cause and circumstances under which the incident happened, it will also check if there was any negligence or carelessness on the part of the local administration, contractor, or anybody else. The government has sought an inquiry report within 10 days.
SIT formed to probe tragedy
The Vadodara Commissioner of Police on Friday formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising seven officers of the city police to probe the incident. The Vadodara city police SIT, headed by Joint Commissioner of Police, Manoj Ninama, has begun looking for 15 partners of M/s Kotia Projects who are among the 18 accused in the FIR.
The order constituting the SIT states that the team has been formed in order to “conduct a deep inquiry into all aspects of the case and also ensure that all (18) accused are arrested in the case at the earliest”. The case has been transferred from Harni police station to the Crime Branch, to be investigated by ACP Rathod, the order, signed by Vadodara Commissioner of Police Anupam Singh Gahlaut, states.
Speaking to The Indian Express DCP Crime Yuvrajsinh Jadeja, who is a supervising officer in the case, said that the police have arrested three accused so far — all employees of the Lake Zone, including two boatmen, who were allegedly responsible for overloading the boat. Jadeja said, “Three of the 18 accused, including two boatmen have been arrested… We are looking for 15 partners, whose names are officially on the list of M/s Kotia Projects. There are names of other persons, who were running the day-to-day business at the Lake Zone, but those will be added to the FIR in the course of the investigation. Prima facie, it appears that the partnership firm had family members of the Kotia and Shah families. None of them are currently at their addresses. We have launched a search to nab them and track down their locations.”
Jadeja added that although the FIR has been filed based on the complaint of the VMC’s Executive Engineer of the Futuristic Planning Cell Rajesh Chauhan, the police are investigating the liability of the civic body in the case. Jadeja said, “During the course of the investigation, if it is found that there was negligence on part of the civic body and its officers, they will also be booked accordingly. We are investigating the case in all aspects.”
The 18 people named as accused include Binit Kotia (32), Hitesh Kotia (55), Gopaldas Shah (58), Vatsak Shah (25), Dipen Shah (24), Dharmil Shah (27), Rashmikant Prajapati (38), Jatin Doshi (64), Neha Doshi (30), Tejal Doshi (46), Bhimsinh Yadav (36), Ved Prakash Yadav (50), Dharmin Bhatani (34), Nutan Shah (48), Vaishakhi Shah (22), Lake Zone manager Shantilal Solanki as well as boat operators Nayan Gohil and Ankit.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a relative of a girl who died said her parents were “shattered and numb”. “No one expected that a fun picnic would turn into a tragedy… The guilty should be punished – from the school management to the contractor to VMC officials,” he said.
Among those grieving the loss of their children was also a couple who lost two of their children, born after 17 years of marriage. The family, which resides on Ajwa Road, lost their children – the boy, a student of Class II and his sister, a student of Class III – in the boat capsize.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a relative of the couple said the two children were first rushed to a private hospital after being pulled out of the lake but could not be resuscitated. “They were born after 17 years of marriage of their parents… The parents had offered prayers at various shrines for years before they were blessed with the two children,” the relative added.
PM announces ex gratia
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the families of those killed, and Rs 50,000 for the injured. “Distressed by the loss of lives due to a boat capsizing at the Harni Lake in Vadodara. My thoughts are with the bereaved families in this hour of grief. May the injured recover soon. The local administration is providing all possible assistance to those affected,” he tweeted.
Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel also expressed his condolences after the tragedy. “The incident of the boat overturning in Harni Lake in Vadodara is heartrending. I pray for the souls of the innocent children who have been killed. I send my condolences to the families who are in pain… may God grant them the strength to bear this pain… We have directed the administration to ensure immediate relief and treatment to those who have become victims of this tragedy,” Patel tweeted.
Opposition questions allotment of boating contract to private firm
The Opposition has demanded a judicial inquiry into the incident. Raising allegations against the, Leader of Opposition in Gujarat assembly, Ami Ravat, questioned the allotment of the boating contract to a private firm.
“This was an act of murder, not an accident. We demand a probe into this incident by a sitting judge. It is a sheer act of negligence,” the Congress leader said.
“No life jackets or lifeguards were in the boat at the time of the incident. Criminal proceedings should be initiated against those found responsible. In 2016, when this project was allotted to contractors, we had objected to it,” she added.