With my children at a porta cabin in Sukma, south Chattisgarh
Restriction! What comes to your mind related to restriction would be lack of freedom. A similar thought process might be applicable to children in Porta Cabins at Sukma, Chhattisgarh which is why they sometimes go away or feel like going away when they are brought to these residential schools.
Wait, What Are Porta Cabins?
Let’s turn some pages of history. Chattisgarh is famous for its forest and the forest is famous for its Naxals. In 2005, because the government wanted to bring development to the state, it had signed memorandum of understanding with corporate giants like the Tata and Essar groups, and was eager to flush the region of the Naxalites in order to let the mining companies smoothly operate. At the same time, villagers who were upset with Naxalites started the spontaneous uprising called Salwa Judum, which means peace march or purification hunt.
Soon this became a state-sponsored anti-naxal movement where it began recruiting ‘Special Police Officers’, from local tribes (including ex-naxals) who were familiar with the local terrain. Many of these civilians were children (just like naxals), who were trained with .303 rifles, instead of holding pen and pencils. Naxals also retaliated in different ways. Between 2005 and 2011, more than 130 schools in Chattisgarh were captured by them. Some schools became their hiding spots during the conflict period and a huge number of them were bombed and destroyed. Also read: Unheard Stories of Salwa Judum Movement
To address the destruction of concrete structures, the administration decided to build schools made of pre-fabricated materials such as bamboo and plywood so that schools cannot be used as hideouts or armed camps. It would also increase the safety of children as these schools are away from remote and interior areas that are more prone to extremist violence. As these schools were seen as a place where children can receive adequate food and education, they are often referred to as Pota Cabins locally as Pota means stomach in regional Gondi language.
Education survived in this ecosystem due to these Porta Cabins. They are not your conventional schools, yet they are a hope that education can survive here. The system involves various stakeholders like the state, district, block, cluster, school and community. Anudeshaks are the personals involved in enrolling children. Every year, they are involved in the process from April to June. Adhikshaks are the teacher-in-charge and other staff who have the responsibility of teaching as well as being the wardens for residential students.
There are around 49 porta cabins located in the left-wing extremism affected districts of Sukma, Narayanpur, Dantewada and Bijapur – each having the capacity to house about 500 students, now being reduced to 250 due to congestion.
Rokel Porta Cabin
During my first few days at Rokel, I was mainly observing the ongoing as I am not a fluent Hindi speaker. Staying quiet actually helped me notice a lot of different aspects. I saw a bunch of lazy kids in class 5, who sleep during the first hour itself while some walk in and out of class at their own will. Further, a lot of students are yet to come back from Diwali holidays. The first day, there were twelve of them in the 5th standard, next day sixteen, then eighteen and after a week, all twenty five were present. Most of them, through their body language, don’t seem interested in learning. The reason for their lethargy could be their rigorous routine. They wake up at 4am, then study for a while, do morning chores, play for a couple of hours and have a heavy breakfast before the classes start.
On one of the days, I sat with children to have lunch with them. Looking at my plate of daal-chawal (the staple meal here for breakfast, lunch and dinner), a student said “Sir, you eat very little rice. If you ever come to our house, you will only get rice and imly (tamarind) curry“. This made me think about the situation in their homes. Most of the children belong to tribal villages nearby Rokel. The parents have sent their children to porta cabins so that they can at least have a stomach full of food. Also, all the expenses of education are borne by the government. But these kids who come to porta cabins, specially at the age 5 or 6 are being emotionally and physically confined within the school compound. They aren’t used to it. So, they run away when they get a chance and then Anudeshaks bring them back.
This frustration and lack of belonging can be seen in many stories. Once, a boy, out of irritation, ran away to his home when he was in 4th standard, only to be brought back and institutionalized by the time he reached 5th standard. A girl, in 4th standard, walked for 30km to go back home and escape the confines of her porta cabin.
During a free period, I was asked to engage the kids in Rokel and I ended up asking them, “What do you want to become later on in your life?“. Babloo*, the first one to respond, said, “I want to be an anda bechne walla”. Sunny* said he wants to be a sabji wallah. Sunder* said that he wants to be a fish seller. Another boy said that he wants to become a naxal while one expressed a desire to be in police and kill naxals. One wanted to be a teacher, another one a farmer. Hearing this was an eye-opener for me in terms of the thought process of children. They want to become what they see around them and what they see around them are not computer engineers or IT professionals or rocket scientists. Their aspirations are not small from their point of view. Yet, I wrote on blackboard and made them read out loud the famous quote by someone who they haven’t heard of.
सपने वो नहीं होते है जो आपको नींद में आते हैं बल्कि सपने वो होते हैं जो आपको सोने ही नहीं देतेDr. APJ ABDUL KALAM
The Pakela Rajdhani Express Porta Cabin
The whole Pakela porta cabin is painted in colors of Rajdhani express and each classroom is like a different bogie. I went with Neeraj Bhai (a colleague here at Shiksharth) to help him in conducting an outdoor activity where we were measuring the angle of elevation using clinometers. Later, when the class got over, he introduced me to the students and told them that I am from Kerala. This got them really interested and they asked me all sorts of questions
Sir, is CPI-M ruling there?
How is the functioning of communist party?
Sir, who is your MLA?
Which party do you belong to?
Who do you vote for?
All the questions were indicative of their experience of living in a politically charged environment. After school, I went to their dormitory and spent some leisure time with them. One kid asked me to play chess with him and I agreed. I was not expecting what was going to happen in the next 60 seconds. Within five moves, he had beaten me in the game. I couldn’t help smiling, out of shock. Applauding, I said “bohot badhiya” and we continued to play two more rounds, both of which I won. It was an entirely different experience from Rokel. There I saw frustration and lack of interest while here, there was determination and hope.
* Name changed to protect identity