People carry the bodies of the victims after the roof of a stepwell in a temple complex collapsed in the central city of Indore, March 31, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

NEW DELHI: Thirty-six bodies have been found inside a well at a Hindu temple in central India after dozens of people attending a festival fell into the muddy water when its cover collapsed, officials said on Friday.

Video of Thursday’s collapse at the temple complex in Indore in Madhya Pradesh state showed chaos afterward, with people rushing away. An excavator pulled down a wall of the decades-old temple to help people flee.

Nearly 140 rescuers, including army personnel, used ropes and ladders to pull the bodies from the well after pumping out the water. A narrow path and debris in the well made the task difficult.

“We have recovered 36 bodies and everybody is accounted for now,” Pawan Kumar Sharma, commissioner of the local municipal corporation, told The Associated Press.

The secretary of the temple board was among the dead and the president is recovering from injuries, Sharma said.

Police brought a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, but no arrests have been made so far, he said.

Witnesses said a large crowd of devotees had thronged the temple to perform a fire ritual and celebrate the festival for the deity Rama.

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A police officer uses his mobile phone to take pictures during the rescue operation. Image Credit: Reuters

Dozens of people fell into the water when the structure collapsed and were covered by falling debris, police Commissioner Makrand Deoskar said.

Kantibhai Patel, president of a residents’ association, told reporters that authorities were slow to react and the first ambulance reached the spot an hour after the alert.

The structure apparently caved in because it could not handle the weight of the large crowd, said Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. He ordered an investigation.

A team of army rescuers joined the operation on Thursday night. The Times of India newspaper reported the rescue work was expedited after underwater cameras showed bodies floating in the muddy waters of the well.

33 bodies identified

Chauhan said 33 of the bodies had been identified. Sixteen of the people who were injured remained hospitalised Friday.

Sobbing relatives claimed the bodies of the victims and visited the hospital where the injured were being treated.

Sources have told IANS that the tragedy could have been averted had the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC) acted upon the illegal constructions (covering of old stepwell) in January this year.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan meets with children who got injured after a stepwell collapsed in a temple, at a hospital, in Indore on Friday. Image Credit: ANI

Official sources in IMC told IANS that it had marked the walls cover for demolition as it was found dangerous during an earlier inspection.

“A notice was also served to Sri Baleshwar Mahadev Jhulelal temple trust to remove the slab in next one week in January. However, action remained on paper only due to fear of hurting religious sentiments,” a senior BMC official told IANS on the condition of anonymity.

The officer also claimed that a show cause notice to the temple trust was also served earlier in April last year, directing that the slab put on top of the stepwell should be removed.

Case registered

A case has been registered against the President and Secretary of temple administration under IPC section 304. Case of unintentional murder registered, said Makrand Deoskar, Commissioner of Police (CP), Indore.

“An FIR registered, magisterial inquiry ordered into the incident. Action will be taken against those found responsible. The current priority is the rescue operation. The injured will be treated free of cost. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also announced an ex-gratia amount to the victims. We have ordered an inspection of such step-wells and borewells across the state,” Chouhan said.

“Whoever is found responsible, will be punished as per the law. As of now, our first priority is to complete the rescue operation, which is still continuing. One person is still missing. State government will bear the medical treatment expenses of all those who got injured. We are ensuring that all injured get the best medical treatment,” Chouhan added.

Temple authorities had stopped using the well years ago and covered the mouth with iron grills and tiles.

Municipal authorities in January ordered the temple owners to remove the covering of the well because it was an unsafe and unauthorized structure, but temple authorities ignored the warning, the newspaper said.

Building collapses are common in India because of poor construction and a failure to observe regulations.

In October, a century-old cable suspension bridge collapsed into a river in the western state of Gujarat, sending hundreds of people plunging into the water and killing at least 132 in one of the worst accidents in the country in the past decade.