Appalling conditions in Chhattisgarh government’s Porta Cabins

From a distance the narrow, longish, white wall — dotted with grey windows — looks like any other hall that houses security men. But closer to the windows one can see faces behind blue and yellow mosquito nets. Zooming in, it turns out to be a dormitory where hundreds of boys and a few dozen girls are housed inside a feebly-lit room.

The dormitory is part of a school in Chintalnar, one of the remotest areas in south Chhattisgarh. Strangely, it is one of the dozens of portable residential schools, commonly called, Porta Cabins, that the government of Chhattisgarh has set up to ‘impart education’ to children, who the administration believes would otherwise be joining the outlawed CPI-Maoist. The children are between five and 15 years of age.

According to activists, living conditions in a majority of the cabins are bad, rather appalling, compared to residential schools in urban areas. The education department has conceived a school, with more than 300 children, without even one functional toilet, says teacher Jairam Singh. The boys relieve themselves in front of the main gate, about 10 yards from the kitchen, and defecate in the forest half a kilometre away from the campus.

The young girls always go out of campus, as they are extremely uncomfortable about relieving themselves in the open in a campus that houses a few hundred boys and a dozen adults.

In recent months several kids have been allegedly sexually tortured in the government-run schools of Chhattisgarh. Even after those incidents, life has not changed here.

“Any time a girl can be molested when she goes out of campus and we will then be in deep trouble,” says Mr. Singh.

Communication consultant Anirban Dutta, whose organisation ‘Metamorphis’ worked with an international children’s organisation in south Chhattisgarh for more than two years, says sanitation is a “huge issue” in the area.

“Not only in Chintalnar but in several Porta Cabins toilets do not exist. Largely because there is no water supply and the toilets get clogged, kids defecate in the open.”

The girls, on condition of anonymity, say older men visit their makeshift rooms. “Male teachers in their twenties always enter our room and one of them beat us up with clubs,” they say. The teacher’s name is Deepak Singh. His brother, who claims to be a freelance journalist, incidentally was this correspondent’s guide in the area. While acknowledging that such incidents may have occurred “once”, the journalist pleaded that his brother’s name not be disclosed.

While erring individuals can be identified easily and punished, it is hard to understand why the education department is indifferent to the future of these children who are ‘potential security threats’ to the State. Otherwise, how could one explain the inability to build a school building or hostel, let alone a toilet, in the last couple of years?

A local contractor, who is working with the department, comes up with a possible reason. “A 30 per cent cut has to be paid to the officers in the education department as bribe. Such a cut is impossible to pay in the forest areas, as the transportation cost is higher,” he says.

Hence, the children, who come from far-flung villages, are packed in a hall with an asbestos ceiling. “This is the kitchen but the boys stay here,” says Mr. Singh. The temperature in south Chhattisgarh has reached 37 degree Celsius, but the children — mostly Muria Gonds — who are habituated to living in the comfortable cover of the forest are forced to stay in a room without a fan.”

“Maoists are not responsible for this mess, it is corruption and mismanagement at the highest level that is forcing the kids to live in the hell holes,” says a local journalist.

Perhaps, the most outrageous event in the school is engaging children in cleaning the huge campus. Last Sunday, the kids went out early to collect tonnes of cow dung, mixed it with water, poured the mixture on the ground and scrubbed it while this correspondent clicked photos. Can a government school engage its students as child workers?

The supervisor of Chintalnar’s Porta Cabin, who could have answered the questions, was missing. The head of school administration in the Konta block, Bhawanishankar Reddy, did not take calls. Senior officials of the Chhattisgarh government acknowledged the problems and promised “swift action.”