November 28, 2016 Leave a comment
LIFE IN A GIRL’S PORTA-CABIN: A RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
by Rashmi Kumari
Porta-cabin at Sunset. Picture by Rashmi Kumari
Jayashree*, a shy eighth-standard student, loved to play. Enrolled at a ‘Porta-cabin’ in Ankaluru village of Bijapur district in Chattisgarh, Jayashree participated in kabaddi competitions held at the village. Her excitement was palpable when Porta-cabin’s warden (Adhikshaka) recommended her name in the school’s team to compete in the under-14 Block-level competitions. However, she had an unusual problem – Jayashree didn’t know her age.
Like Jayashree, all the 11 girls who were recommended for the kabaddi team were unaware of their dates of birth. This may have been a non-issue for most children in this tribal belt, as documenting one’s age is not a common practice among their community. However, for a student, issues such as this assume several facets. Under one of the RTE norms, free and compulsory education is provided to children between the ages of six and 14 years. This makes proof of age for these children important to be enrolled in the mainstream school portal. Age is also an important factor for children to participate in any event held at different levels.
For children who stay with their parents, this may not pose a big problem. Jayashree and her friends, who hail from interior villages (andarwale gaon) and stay at residential Porta-cabins, depend on their school staff (Anudeshaks and Adhikshaks) to know their age and dates of birth. A common practice among the staff is to guess a child’s age and assign a date of birth depending on their own religious and national sentiments. Popular dates are Republic Day, Independence Day, Gandhi Jayanthi, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day. This is primarily because many of these students at the Porta-cabin were either displaced or orphaned due to the violence that shook Chattisgarh during Salwa Judum.
Caught in the crossfire between different actors involved in the bloody conflict, these children were encouraged to take shelter in make-shift residential schools, a.k.a. Porta-cabins, by the then district authorities. Driven by the fact that permanent school structures were used by military and para-military forces as a base for their operations and the consequent destruction of these structures by the Maoists, authorities came up with a so-called ‘innovative’ solution – creation of temporary, prefabricated bamboo structures that could be relocated at a short notice. These cabins were supposed to be an immediate, short-term solution to provide safer spaces to children affected by the conflict. However, they have been made concrete and are replacing the non-residential school in some respect.
Hailed as a most ‘successful’ initiative, 500-seater Porta-cabins started springing up across the violence-hit Bastar region. A total of 65 cabins providing free education to children until the eighth standard were established between the intervening period of 2008 and 2013. Following the incidents of sexual harassment, these schools were further segregated along the lines of gender. During this phase of expansion, Porta-cabins underwent a transformation. Prefabricated bamboo structures gave way to concrete structures; a temporary solution was now regarded as a permanent substitute for regular government schools in the area. ‘Adarsh Gurukul’ became ‘Avasiya Vidyalaya’.
The transition of these schools from Adarsh Gurukul to Avasiya Vidyalayas may not be a co-incidence. In the official discourses that seldom talks about the community’s needs and perceptions, Porta-cabins have been hailed as the best solution to provide ‘safe’ spaces for conflict-hit children. Located at the fringes of Naxal dominated areas, Porta-cabins were also intended to serve as an example to the local population. The then collector of Dantewada, O.P. Chaudhary, gives his rational for promoting Porta-cabins in a paper he co-authoured with Manisha Priyam and Sanjay Chopra.
“There was a constant threat of naxal violence. The fringe area schools were developed as clusters of development – building of roads, bridges, electricity, drinking water, and health facilities was veered around them. It helped to create a demonstration effect for the people from interior villages,” the paper argues.
The geographical location of these residential schools hint at a two-fold assumption of safety. At one level, the campus is assumed to be safeguarded by the very presence of a police station and a CRPF camp right by its side. On another level, it is assumed that the children will be ‘mainstreamed’, reducing the possibility of falling into the ‘wrong hands’.
During my stay in the area, I found that most Porta-cabins were located at the peripheries of the villages adjacent to the CRPF camps. Girls’ residential schools, such as Ankaluru Porta-cabin, were also supposed to be a ‘no-male’ premises, making them ‘safer’ for girls.
The phrase ‘safer for girls’ is a politically charged statement. Keeping the girl child as a central figure in the discourses of global politics is a form of “child politics” (Baird 2008) in general and “girl child politics” (Berents 2016) in particular. As Berents further says that in the discursive figure of the “girl child the protective, patriarchal and innocent discursive framings become more explicit”. (Berents, 2016). A gender identity does not stand in isolation with other identities of caste, tribe, class and race. Hence, it is also not immune to the power and hierarchies of the society. Hierarchy in a society is generally maintained through spatial segregation. Feminists studies of schooling, curricula have pointed out how within the institutional knowledge and contexts, gender ideologies are maintained and reproduced (Bhog 2002, Chanana 2001, Manjrekar 2013). School knowledge and practices often work in tandem with the heteronormative patriarchal society to present a ‘normalised’ male-dominated world.
The state-led effort of ‘mainstreaming’ children presents numerous challenges for girl students such as Jayashree. Contradictions in the concept of Porta-cabin present themselves at several levels. These girls are removed from their own communities, which are considered to be easily influenced by the Maoist ideology, so that they will be kept safely away from violence and armed resistance. Kept at a close proximity to the armed state forces, girls, however, are constantly reminded about the violence engulfing their lives.
Further more, even if the security forces stopped occupying majority of the school premises as their operations base following the 2011 Supreme Court order, these premises are still under constant scanner of security forces. Girls at Ankaluru Porta-cabin were constantly reminded about the presence of armed soldiers during the patrols conducted by the CRPF and state police forces twice a week. During these patrols, the armed policemen form a ring around the school and the residential areas. Interestingly, policemen always face the inhabitants and subject them to a constant gaze. Intensity of these patrols increased significantly around Independence Day celebrations.
The pattern of these patrols point out that though the children are in ‘safe’ spaces, they also seem to be posing some kind of threat to the state which necessitates a constant surveillance. Many a times during my fieldwork, block officials and government para-teachers (Sikshakarmi) pointed out to me that these children, who come to Porta-cabin, are the children from “andarwale gaon” meaning either ‘liberated’ villages or Naxal strongholds. Hence, there was a necessity for the government to bring them into mainstream through education.
The aim of education, say Krishna Kumar and Latika Gupta, “is to enable all children to realize their right to participate in governance as sensitive and responsible citizens” (Kumar and Gupta, 2008: 27). They further note that it is a difficult aim for children from Dalit, tribal, minority and other groups to achieve. It also becomes a two-fold battle for girls belonging to these groups, because they not only have to face the general deprivation that these communities face but also the suppressive forces that every girl faces (ibid).
Navigating their ways through the geographical challenges of these terrain and political challenges posed due to the dispute over resources, these girls are fighting a larger war and hoping to continue their studies after middle school. Some of them are able to join high schools and some are still waiting for high school hostels to be constructed in their village. When asked about her future plans and aspirations, Jayashree, who is about to complete her eighth standard, smiles and says, “Madamji, hostel me hi rehkar padhenge.”
*Names of people and places have been changed to protect their identity.
(Rashmi Kumari finished her MPhil at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2016. This article is an excerpt from her MPhil thesis that was based on her fieldwork conducted in 2015 in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh.)
Baird, B. 2008. “Child Politics, Feminist Analyses.” Australian Feminist Studies 23 (57): 291–305.
Berents, H. 2016: Hashtagging girlhood: #IAmMalala, #BringBackOurGirls and gendering representations of global politics, International FeministJournal of Politics,
Bhog, D. 2002. Gender and Curriculum. Economic and Political Weekly, 37, 1638-1642.
Chanana, K. 2001. Hinduism and Female Sexuality: Social Control and Education of Girls in India. Sociological Bulletin , 50, 37-63.
Kumar , K., & Gupta, L. 2008. What is Missing in Girls’ Empowerment ? Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 43 Issue, 2-27, 19-24.
Manjrekar, N. 2013. Gender, Childhood, and Work in the Nation: Voices and Encounters in an Indian School. In G. B. Nambisan, & S. S. Rao, Sociology of Education India: Changing Contours and Emerging Concerns (pp. 157-181). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.