Pota Cabins is an innovative educational initiative for building schools with impermanent materials like bamboo and plywood in Chhattisgarh. The initiative has helped reduce the number of out-of-school children and improve enrolment and retention of children since its introduction in 2011. These residential schools help ensure continuity of education from primary to middle-class levels in Left Wing Extremism affected villages of Dantewada district, by providing children and their families a safe zone where they can continue their education in an environment free of fear and instability.
The development deficit in the Dakshin Bastar area, which includes Dantewada district, has been largely attributed to the remoteness of villages, lack of proper infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and weak penetration of communication technology. The situation in this region has worsened due to Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) and violence.
To address the destruction of concrete structures, the administration decided to build schools made of prefabricated materials such as bamboo and ply so that schools cannot be used as hideouts or armed camps.
Secondly, it would also draw children away from the remote and interior areas of villages that are more prone to Left Wing Extremists violence. As these schools are perceived as places where children can receive adequate food and education, they are often referred to Potacabins locally, as ‘pota’ means ‘stomach’ in the local Gondi language.
The main objective of the initiative includes enrolment and continuous retention of out-of-school children by bringing them to the mainstream society through formal education. It also aims at inculcating a scientific temper in children to prepare them not only for employment opportunities but also for qualitative changes through the provision of basic amenities of healthcare, food and proper accommodation along with an environment that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. It seeks to promote vocational skills and build capacities for self-employment among students.
The key stakeholders involved in the programme operate at five different levels – state, district, block, cluster and school.
The conundrum in rebuilding schools was that concrete structures take a long time to construct and are easily destroyed by the Left Wing Extremists violence. Therefore, ‘portable cabins’ made of pre-fabricated bamboo and ply were conceptualised. They are long-lasting and durable, fireproof and waterproof and can be easily rebuilt. Bamboo is procured from Nagaland and cement plinths are laid for the foundation. The capacity of Pota Cabins, which initially was 500, was later reduced to 250 seats in order to reduce congestion.
Further, it was decided that the Pota Cabins would be built in educational clusters and not in interior areas so that there is no objection to laying cement plinths. This will also ensure that teachers would not be required to go to remote areas, which might affect their attendance, and this would also make monitoring and evaluation easier.
The beneficiaries, who are students up to class 8, are either classified by age or by their actual level of education. The defined age group is 6-14 years but sometimes, older children with education levels corresponding to those below 14 years of age are also included in the group.
While the District Project Coordinator (DPC) and the Assistant Project Coordinator (APC) look after district-level implementation, the Block Resource Coordinator (BRC) looks into block level issues. Monitoring activities are undertaken by the Collector at the district level, followed by the APC, BRC and Cluster Resource Coordinator (CRC).
After the construction of Pota Cabins, the personnel involved – anudeshaks (volunteers) from the local Gondi and Halbi speaking population, adhikshaks (teacher-in- charge) and other teaching staff – are hired. They are given the dual responsibility of being class instructors as well as wardens for the student residents.
Anudeshaks are also given a target of enrolling children based on the capacity of the school. After conducting a survey, they visit the designated villages in interior areas, convince the parents about the merits of the Pota Cabin education system and bring the children to school. This exercise is now conducted annually in the months of April-June before the start of the academic year.
Once the children are brought to the Pota Cabins, they are classified on the basis of age and level of education up to class 8. Children whose educational level is not at par with their age are given special attention and training for a period of six months. All students are provided lodging, food (including Mid-Day Meals), uniforms and textbooks.
Students get acclimatised to the new environment through local games and activities. Further on, the curriculum prepared by the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) is taught to them in their respective classes.
In some cases, children run away since they are not used to living in closed spaces. In such cases, anudeshaks trace them to their homes, bring them back and make additional efforts to habituate them to the new environment. During holidays and local festivals also, children are taken home and dropped back by their parents or anudeshaks .
Students are allotted lodging spaces in dormitories on the campus. For the preparation of meals, steam boilers have been introduced in a few Pota Cabins on a pilot basis.
This has greatly helped in reducing the time, effort and number of people involved in cooking meals. Generally, there are three sources of power supply in every Pota Cabin – regular government power supply, generator back up and solar panels.
Modern teaching and entertainment facilities, such as television with satellite channel connections and education package CDs and smart classes equipped with digital learning aids for videos and presentations have been provided. Some Pota Cabins have also been provided with computer labs, library rooms and science labs. The Pota Cabins have extra-curricular activities like sports, yoga, summer and winter camps, dance and arts programmes on special occasions.
In collaboration with Vigyan Ashram, Pune, a programme called ‘Introduction to Basic Technology’ (IBT) has been introduced for children studying in classes VI, VII and VIII. The children are given skills training in farming, gardening, electronics, pickle-making and arts and crafts. Health needs are mostly taken care of by the resident staff but for medical emergencies, every Pota Cabin has been allotted a ‘Tata Magic’ van with an assigned driver.
The initiative has helped reduce the number of out-of-school children and improve enrolment and retention of children since its introduction in 2011. The number of out-of-school children in the 6-14 years age group reduced from 21,816 to 5,780 as the number of Pota Cabins rose from 17 to 43 within a year of the initiative.
One of the foremost challenges was that children would run away from Pota Cabins, mainly because they were not used to staying in closed environments and had difficulty in adjusting. However, this has reduced since initial implementation as the staff has learnt to imbibe elements of the local culture to make the children comfortable.
Another stumbling block was the reluctance of parents to send their children to residential schools. To counter this, anudeshaks would inform parents of the facilities that would be made available, and convince them that their children would be provided boarding, clothing, regular meals and a safe place to stay away from LWE-affected areas. Now that the Pota Cabins culture is well-known and established, many parents send children to these institutions of their own accord at the beginning of the academic year.
Another challenge was to convince contractors to build Pota Cabins in LWE-affected areas and in Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) protected areas. The district administration made efforts to ensure that construction sites were given protection and their access through check points was facilitated.
It was also found that appropriate sanitation habits had to be developed among the students. Hence, with the help of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the students were trained in basic hygiene standards and sanitation practices. The average life span of Pota Cabins is 15 years but they have started showing signs of breakdown after a period of five years. Hence, there is a transition towards permanent structures. At times the number of volunteers has had to be reduced due to financial constraints and this has caused a shortage in management staff.
Pota Cabins seek to bring about a generational change by addressing the lack of education in schools that have been destroyed by violence. Attempts are being made to merge Pota Cabins with the primary school system so that it can be brought under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. Pota Cabins have raised hope for a positive change by bringing the dropout children back to the schooling system and fulfilling the goal of ‘education for all’.
Source : NITI Aayog
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