Forty minutes before classes were to begin on Tuesday, around 60 students at Saraswati Balika Vidya Mandir in Shamli approached their teachers.
“They complained of dizziness, breathlessness, headache and nausea. The administration was informed and the students were immediately rushed to hospital,” said Ravindra Kumar, principal of the school. Two kilometres away, Global Shanti Care Hospital and Trauma Centre started admitting some of the students — aged 6 to 14 years — around 10 am. “About 30 children were admitted with symptoms of anxiety, nausea, chest congestion and respiratory distress. Their heart beat was over 100. Four of them had respiratory distress and were admitted to the ICU. Everyone recovered by evening and were discharged,” said Madan Mohan Jha, Medical Superintendent at the hospital.
With a student strength of 2,000, Saraswati Balika Vidya Mandir claims to have students from 48 villages in Shamli district. One such village, Lilon, is just a kilometre from the school.
“It has been understood that students who reached Saraswati Shishu Mandir Vidyalaya by taking the road from Lilon village complained of itchy eyes and difficulty in breathing,” said a statement from the DGP’s office.
On this road, an unpaved path led to a sugar mill complex that houses a bio-gas plant. A pungent smell filled the air near the mill and some people leaving the mill premises had their faces covered with cloth. None of them or the two guards at the gate would comment on the incident or whether industrial waste was disposed recently.
Pappu Kumar, a resident of Lilon village, claimed that his niece, a Class IX student, returned from school complaining of nausea and breathlessness. “We got to know that students had fallen ill and were hospitalised. We picked her up from school and took her to a doctor. She was given medicine,” he said.
Less than 200 metres from the mill compound, Prachi Sharma, a Class XI student, had returned home from a private hospital. Sitting on the bed, she breathed heavily, supporting herself with her arms. “She felt dizzy but did not lose consciousness. She is still short of breath,” said her father Devendra Sharma.
By evening, an FIR had been registered against the owner and management of the sugar mill on the basis of a complaint by the school principal.
“Students who came to school on foot from Lilon village were the ones who fell sick. Investigation is under way. The DGP has ordered an inquiry under the commissioner of Saharanpur. Samples from the spot have been sent for forensic examination. All angles are being explored — whether there was emission from the mill, burning of waste. The accused have maintained it is a conspiracy but our investigation will ascertain the cause,” said Ajay Pal, SP, Shamli.
“The factory is close to the school and was installed in 1933. It was closed for a long time and was in the process of being reopened. Something might have happened during the cleaning process,” DM Indra Vikram Singh said.
A senior health official said, “It seems that waste was disposed by putting some chemical on it which generated some white matter and released gases like ammonia. The children could have inhaled the gas, which could have been toxic. Details will be revealed after investigation.” Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath ordered an inquiry into the matter.
“In Shamli Hon CM has ordered an inquiry by the commissioner of Saharanpur and directed the DM and all local officers to provide all possible help to the affected children,” said Avanish Awasthi, principal secretary, Information department, UP.