A 100-year-old school is being forced to shift, gas leaks have scared them

Dont want to end up like Bhopal victims Ordeal of a Kerala school next to a petrol refinery
news Gas Leaks Wednesday, October 05, 2016 - 13:39

Thirty-two-year-old Rajesh, a shop keeper was one among hundreds who had gathered in front of the gate of a Bharat Petroleum Corporation limited (BPCL) refinery at Ambalamugal in Kochi.

Rajesh speaks emotionally about his alma mater, the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School in Ambalamugal.

“When I passed out from 10th standard, there were around 2000 students in the school. When my father studied in the same school in the 1960s, there were thousands of children in high school alone. Now the lower primary school has hardly 100 students and higher secondary another hundred. The refinery is responsible for this,” he said.

The school building

Last Thursday (September 29), around 34 students and many teachers from the school were admitted to various hospitals in Ernakulam district after inhaling gas that leaked from the BPCL refinery. A handful of students were even admitted to Intensive Care Units and are still recovering.

The educational institution is more than 100 years old, while the refinery was set up in 1966.

The two buildings are so close to each other that teachers and students say they are forced to inhale gases every day, some days worse than the other.

The Ambalamugal government school is situated in an industrial area, sandwiched between many factories and refineries belonging to BPCL, Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) and others.

The BPCL refinery

“This was not our first experience, though this was the first time that students and teachers got admitted in hospital. Every day one or two students faint or vomit in the school.  We even have beds arranged in the school so that children who feel uneasy can take rest for the day,” says Rogy Joseph, a teacher at the school.

Nandana a high school student says she panicked when her teacher taught a chapter on the Bhopal gas tragedy in class. “We were scared that one day we would also be victims of some gas leakage. That day when most of us fell sick, we thought of the Bhopal gas tragedy. But luckily nothing as dangerous as what had happened in Bhopal has occurred here yet. But since we inhale these gases in whatever quantity on a daily basis, maybe it will happen one day to us,” she said.

A board outside the school that says 'we don't want another Bhopal' 

Bindu Thankappan has been teaching in the school for more than eight years, feeling sick through the day has become a part of her routine. Bindu had been hospitalized for three days following the leak on Thursday. “So many teachers who had joined the school in these years have got transfers, since I teach insurance and there are few teachers for that subject, I never got a transfer. I have headache every day. We have all been suffering for years, but on Thursday I fainted. It’s like living in constant fear,” she noted.

Five days after the gas leak, the fear is palpable.

“For the last five years we have been asking the government to shift the school to a new location. How long we can stay here under fear? Now they have arranged some community halls from where they want us to take classes. But for how long is that possible? The number of students has come down drastically. The refinery expects that the school will shut one day and we will leave without a whimper,” Jojy Augustine, another teacher said. 

Though BPCL had first denied and claimed that the leakage was not from their refinery, they had later admitted to the incident and provided medical assistance.

“One teacher and four students are still in the hospital. Many who were discharged are still feeling sick. Shifting the classes temporarily is not a good solution,” Bindu argued.

Though many believe that shifting permanently would be the way out, others are pained that the town would lose the school.  “I studied there, now it has to be abandoned to save children. It is painful that a 100-year-old school has to meet with this fate,” lamented 60-year-old Rajan.

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