The interiors of Chhattisgarh affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE), areas such as Bastar, Dantewada, Narayanpur, Sukma, and Bijapur, are dotted with cabins made of pre-fabricated bamboo and plywood. These durable fireproof and waterproof structures, in fact, are state-run residential schools which enable the government to extend education facilities in these regions and help bring youngsters into the fold of mainstream society.
The schools are commonly referred to as Porta Cabins and here students are given free meals along with education, boarding facilities, uniforms and books.
The LWE-hit areas in Chhattisgarh are typically not well-connected, both in terms of road networks as well as communication technology. Moreover, schools are soft targets for extremists, and have either been destroyed or rendered defunct. According to government statistics from 2011, the number of out-of-school children in the age group of 6-14 years in Dantewada district alone was 50.3 percent and 20-30 percent schools were reported to be defunct.
To address this gap, the State Government decided to experiment with the innovative Porta Cabins initiative in 2011. Because these structures are relatively easy to build, they can be set up in a matter of few days. Also, because the schools would provide food and educational amenities free of cost, the authorities hoped that they would incentivise enrolment and help with the retention of students in some of the remotest regions of the state.
At the Porta Cabins, children are classified on the basis of age and level of education up to class 8. The curriculum follows the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) syllabus. Children who are below par with the academic requirement for their age are given special attention and training for six months. Since the children enrolled with the Porta Cabins have never stayed away from their families, extra attention is paid to ensure that they get acclimatised to the new environment through local games and activities, and extra-curricular activities like sports, yoga, summer and winter camps, and dance and arts programmes.
The residential education programme aims to inculcate a scientific temperament in children and prepare them for employment opportunities and qualitative changes through the provision of basic amenities of healthcare, food and proper accommodation. A key objective of the programme is to promote vocational skills and build capacities for self-employment among students, through an environment that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship.
Driving awareness about these Porta Cabins are local volunteers who are adept in Gondi and Halbi. They visit the villages and educate the parents about the merits of the Porta Cabins and help to bring the children to school. The day-to-day operations of the Porta Cabins are managed by a teacher-in-charge and teaching staff who also double up as class instructors and wardens for the student residents.
Within five months of being launched in 2011, 12 Porta Cabin schools each with a capacity to seat 500 students were built in Dantewada alone. From the initial months, Porta Cabins delivered on all fronts. They made education accessible again in areas where schools were once destroyed by Naxal violence. They helped bring students from tribal families back to school because they no longer had to walk miles to access the nearest one. Schools were set up in remote places without healthcare facilities, erratic electricity supply, untarred roads and some places accessible only by foot.
In other words, Porta Cabins brought children from inaccessible and remote areas into the formal schooling system. Within a year after the initiative was launched, the number of out-of-school children in the 6-14 years age group reduced from 21,816 to 5,780 and the number of Porta Cabins rose to 43 in Dantewada alone.
The initial success saw the initiative undergo a progressive transformation. Initially, the Porta Cabins were used for conducting Residential Bridge Courses, and soon they were incorporated under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Also, in a bid to reduce congestion, the Porta Cabins now house 250 children as opposed to 500 children earlier. A number of NGOs working in the education sector, like Patham and Bachpan Banao, have been roped in to assist and further improve the delivery of the programme. In addition, to enhance the pedagogy, a number of Porta Cabins are equipped with modern teaching aids and entertainment facilities, such as television with satellite channel connections, and smart classes equipped with digital learning aids for videos and presentations. Some Porta Cabins even have computer labs, library rooms and science labs.
These successes, however, did not come easily. Because Porta Cabins had to be set up in LWE-affected regions and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) protected areas, private contractors were wary. So the district administration made efforts to ensure that construction sites were given protection and their access through check points was facilitated. The other challenge was the reluctance of parents to send their children to a residential school programme, which was overcome with the help of awareness drives led by the volunteers. The next key problem was that even if the children were admitted to the Porta Cabins, they often got homesick and ran away. But sensitising the children helped them adapt to the culture of the residential programme.
More than half a decade later, Porta Cabins are a household name in the interiors of Bastar and Dantewada. The enrolment numbers have increased while the school dropout rate has drastically reduced. But the real testimony of the success of the programme comes in the form of acceptance by the locals, LWE and armed forces alike. Which means that the temporary school structures are now being transitioned into permanent structures.
According to a 2017 government circular to the Education Secretary by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, 49 Porta Cabin schools located in the LWE district of Sukma, Narayanpur, Dantewada and Bijapur were approved for upgradation to permanent structures.