[An earlier version of this story, published Sept. 27, was revised Oct. 4 to reflect that damage to the ashram’s building is more serious than initially reported, prompting a more pressing need to find new academic facilities.]
An earthquake in northeastern India Sept. 18 prompted concern in the Colby community about the welfare of Gandhi Ashram School in Kalimpong, where Colby students have taught Jan Plans every year since 2007. A resident of the town reported later, after communications were restored, that there were no injuries. While initial reports conveyed only minor damage at the school, the ashram’s director, Fr. Paul D’Souza SJ, now reports that the ashram’s main academic building is structurally compromised.
In a Facebook message to Colby students, D’Souza was concerned about the immediate impact on the school and the local community: “We have had an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude the previous Sunday. [We] survived. Now [there is] inclement weather. Seems like the world is coming to end,” he wrote. “Take care and say a prayer for us.”
Not far from Kalimpong, in Gangtok, the capital of the Indian state of Sikkim, the September earthquake killed more than 100 people and caused several buildings to collapse.
Because of the College’s connection with the ashram, the news from the region worried students and faculty who have worked in Kalimpong. “When I first heard, I was concerned about all of our friends and the kids we taught in Kalimpong,” said Lindsay Dale ’12, who spent last January at the school. “My grandfather actually called to tell me about it because he knew how much they mean to me.”
In an Associated Press article, Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee said Kalimpong and neighboring Darjeeling were left “in total darkness” when power lines snapped during the quake. Landslide warnings added to the worries of Dale and others, who, knowing the region’s limited resources and economic development, were concerned about the hill station’s ability to recover from a potentially devastating natural disaster.
The idea of a major earthquake was “really scary having lived there and knowing how unconnected it is from the rest of the world,” said Veronica Foster ’12, who taught at the school in January 2011. The lack of communications fueled speculation about the situation in Kalimpong for Foster and others.
When contacted via Facebook, ashram-school graduate Prabash Tamang initially confirmed that the school had sustained damage. “It made a crack in one of the buildings,” he said, “but we all are fine.”
The school, built into the Himalayan mountainside, had preexisting structural concerns that arose from land erosion and prompted long-term plans to relocate to a more central location with larger facilities. However, time and capital restraints have slowed this project, and the ashram is currently scrambling to find temporary academic facilities in light of the earthquake.
“I heard somewhere empathy shuts down when you’re given a statistic,” said Qainat Khan ’11, who was extremely concerned about students’ access to education. “It’s not just any natural disaster. This one is way more personal. Anyone who went to Kalimpong had a transformative experience, whether it was getting to know kids and meeting their families or just experiencing their culture in their villages. I absolutely hate to think something awful would happen to them when we’re so far away.”