Detachment and Integration: Life in Pota Cabins

by | Jun 1, 2024

Field visits are always exhilarating especially as a new person in an ecosystem. But at the same time, being away from home in a new place may sometime lead to some unpleasant feelings and a sense of detachment. This feeling followed me during my initial field visits, as an India Fellow at Shiksharth, to a girls’ Pota Cabin school. I was eager to learn and immerse myself into the new geography, but at the same time it somehow felt isolating.

A single-storied bamboo structure from the outside is the left, with a muddy road and some green trees on the right
Pre-fabricated bamboo structure in school campus surrounded with a kitchen garden and trees

I found the structure of the pota cabins to be very different from my assumptions. The school primarily consisted of a concrete building, utilizing the previously existing bamboo structure for only two of the class sections. The rest of it served as a food storage facility. The structure appeared detached from the rest of the school building. But why did I find it different from what I had initially thought? Why does the structure look like this? What is the history behind? How do these school function? Were some questions that made me more curious to further understand whats going on.

What Are Pota Cabins?

The pota cabin schools (named as a word play on porta, which means stomach in the regional language, Gondi as well as portable in English) have been functioning in the Maoist-affected districts of Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur and Sukma since 2011-12. These residential structures are made of pre-fabricated material bamboo and ply. Initially the bamboo was sourced from Nagaland and cement plinths were laid for foundation. The bamboo structures are durable, fireproof and can be easily built. The temporary and easily built nature of the schools is an integral feature.

Also read: This piece to understand the history behind pota cabins.

The initial thought behind turning the Pota cabins into schools was to create temporary structures targeting primary education as a counter-insurgency operation. The idea was to build the structures away from the remote and interior villages that are prone to the extremists violence. The violence has worsened the pre-existing remoteness of villages, lack of proper infrastructures such as roads, bridges, and weak penetration of communication. The structures provided a two-fold solution to the issue of insurgency in the districts most-affected by this violence from both state and non state actors.

One objective of pota cabins was to provide a safe and healthy environment for children, shielding them from violence. Another objective was to reintroduce education in educational clusters located in blocks. These clusters contrast with the remote interiors, where previously constructed concrete school infrastructures lie in ruins. However in a 2017 government circular to the Education Secretary by the Ministry of Human Resource Development the bamboo structures were approved for up-gradation to concertized structures.

The primary reason for using temporary structures was the Maoists’ refusal to permit the construction of permanent structures in the interiors. They feared these structures would serve as bases for security forces during anti-naxal operations. Secondly, the guardians feel convinced in sending their wards as the provision of meals being present, hence the name ‘Pota’.

How Do Pota Cabins Function?

After construction of pota cabins, the staff, including Adhikshaks (teacher-in-charge) who act as wardens and class instructors, along with Anudeshkas (volunteer from the local population) and teaching faculties are assigned the responsibility of the students. Anudeshaks are tasked with conducting surveys in designated villages located in remote areas, assessing the school’s capacity. They also persuade parents to enroll their children in school, typically before the start of an academic year.

A large group of adolescent girls wearing school uniforms sitting on wooden benches inside a classroom with a women facilitator standing in the middle
Shiksharth team member taking a MHM (Menstrual Hygiene Management) session in a room filled with girls from a POTA CABIN school

This results in classifying students based on age or level of education. The predefined age group for enrollment is 6-14 years. However, older students may be admitted if their educational level matches that of younger students. Each student is provided with lodging, food (involving mid-day meals), uniforms and textbooks without any costs.


Chotte bachon ko basha nahi aata, bade bacche seekh lete hain toh samjh jaate hain (younger ones don’t understand the language, elders learn the language so they understand)

Anudeshak of one of the POTA CABINS discussing about the prominent challenge

A pota cabin has the capacity of 500 students. However the management of such a big number of students of different age groups by one or two staff personnel throughout the day is a highly debatable situation. During some of my visits to girls’ pota cabin for MHM sessions that are centered around awareness of one’s body and it’s changes; adopting safe and healthier menstrual hygiene process. The challenges with managing the crowd would be prominent. The Anudeshaks would talk about how the increasing strength of 500-600, is difficult to manage.

Language becomes the biggest hurdle for children as well staff. The younger students don’t understand Hindi or even the most prominent language within campus, Gondi. This creates a hindrance for the students leading to an added level of detachment. The students are unable to express themselves and their worries; and resort to crying or isolating themselves from the group.

The schedule within the school is very packed starting from morning at 4:00 to 9:00 at night. The schedule includes both curricular and co-curricular activities. Throughout the day they organize activities such as regular classes, local games, cleaning the campus, gardening and more. These activities are curated by the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT).

Life In Pota Cabins

Pota cabin schools aimed to achieve a generational change. This was conceptualized to be achieved by integrating children affected by violence and conflict into the education system. All this while providing basic amenities like food, shelter and safety, thereby advancing the goal of education for all. However, this integration sometimes becomes a constrained necessity in the life of the child, who seeks to escape it at any possible opportunity.

During a conversation with one of my colleague at Shiksharth, Durga, who has been working here from 2017, she mentioned that during her 3 year stay at pota cabin schools, she observed children of younger age would miss home more.

The younger ones would always ask to call their parents, they would keep crying. Sometime two or three girls of the same village would plan for an escape. The Anudeshaks would then have to bring them back to school. The older ones however would start adapting and assimilating to the environment.

The children are used to foraging, climbing trees, hunting and residing in forests. The sudden change of modern hygiene, strict routine and boundaries tends to dissociate them from the environment. The detachment tends to be more profound when the trees and forests are nearby but you can’t climb them.

” na jungle jaa sakte, na fal todne jaa sakte na ped pe chad sakte” (neither can they go to forest, nor can they pick fruits nor can they climb trees)

Durga, teacher at girls pota cabin, describing one of the reason why children would feel detached

Escaping Boundaries

During a bird watch, conducted as an ecology program by Shiksharth. I had conversations with children, whether they were excited to see the birds through binoculars. The children mentioned that they were most excited to come out of the campus, and kept urging me and my colleague to take them further away from the campus. There were a lot of fruit bearing trees at the periphery of the campus. I asked, “why don’t we get some fruits for us?” a child replied sheepishly, “mana karte hain” (we are told no).

The students miss their lifestyle back home where they are use to foraging but here they are restricted. The teachers don’t usually advise them to go out of campus, either for safety or to respect the communal property. They constantly struggle with the new environment, language meanwhile being separated from their own familiar routine and lifestyle.

Close Yet Too Far

These broken conversations here and there with the children and my colleagues made me think one thing. It can’t be just the feeling of home-sickness, that leads to children escaping. It has to be more than that. From my experience, I could sense lack of belonging to the place despite of similarities. The schools are situated within villages surrounded with lush forests but the children are not allowed to access them. The community is present within few footsteps but there is lack of integration.

6 teenage girls in school uniform looking at birds o the tree inside an open forest area with different kinds of trees in the background
Girls from POTA CABIN school on a bird watch looking for birds while laughing and discussing

This observation might apply to many residential school students and not just those in pota cabin schools. However, integrating these young minds into a predetermined education system, very different from their own culture. This creates detachment for them from their own community, culture and values, which can be quite isolating. The scenario might not be true for other schools with weekly outings and yearly excursion trips. These trips provide a break for the students and a learning opportunity at the same time. This however is lacking for the students at pota cabin schools.

Another dimension of detachment exists among the children of the community where the pota cabins are established and those who attend school there. During a combined summer camp conducted within the schools. Children from the community would talk how they have never interacted with each other before. Despite being within same space.

hum tora lene aate hain school ke bahar waale ped man se par kabhi baat nahi ki (we came to pick mahua buds from the trees outside of school but never talked)

A child from the pota cabin school shared

The availability of integration exist, with the presence of children of same age from the community. This could lead to exchange of cultures and values but the access to each other is lacking. This situation results in the creation of distinct groups within a learning environment meant to be inclusive.

Food For Thought

The initiative of pota cabin schools has shown significant reduction in number of OOSC (out of school children) but a significant lacuna in imbibing the native culture of the community has led to a visible sign of seclusion. The lack of integration of native culture and contextual learning within school campus can lead to separation from the learning environment. The deliberate integration of children affected by extremist conflict into the schooling system, aimed at providing ‘education for all’ might be coming at a price. The price of the same children becoming detached from their very own sense of belonging.

What Can We Do?

A ray of hope to minimize this detachment could be of creating a platform where children from all schools and community can come together. A space that encourages to build relationships beyond any boundaries. Like multi-disciplinary inter-schools competitions. The competition could included all types of schools ranging from KGBVs, GPSs, SAGES, Residential schools and pota cabin schools. This opportunity to interact with students of similar age and different environment would result in creating a space to exchange information and feel in true terms integrated.

Another way could be to conduct community walks, biweekly visits to local market. This would create familiarity with the local culture. In turn providing an opportunity to find commonalities and integrate. The visits could act as excursion and break from monotonous routine.Seasonal camps and nature-integrated curriculum can also work as another way to widen the possibility of belonging. In our experience of conducting seasonal camps where we have integrated sessions from Science, menstrual hygiene, nature to fundamental literacy with the students from different schools and villages; which involves community youth, who are young volunteers from the community.

We have observed that these camps can also acts as a catalyst for passing down generational knowledge and building the present rift. The rift, apparent between the indigenous knowledge of the ancestors to the newer generation.

At Shiksharth, we follow a nature-integrated curriculum. We employ the model of nature-classrooms to teach the regular curriculum using means of nature. Measures like nature walks, contextual and spaces like community learning centers. Solutions like these would result fruitful only if the measures are contextual, experiential and inclusive for all. Then would the aspiration of “education for all” be somewhat on the right path.

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