Korsa Sukka, 17, has been home at Sukma in Chhattisgarh now for more than a year. In 2018, he had moved into a ‘Pota Cabin School’, 36 km from his village, as part of a government scheme across the state’s Naxal-hit areas to house children closer to district headquarters. However, since the Covid lockdown, the schools have been shut, and Korsa, who left for home without his books, says his hopes of returning are dimming every day.
Around 30,000 children in 60 Pota Cabin Schools (named so because they are made of pota or bamboo as it is locally known, and other impermanent material), across Bijapur, Sukma, Dantewada and Narayanpur districts, are in a similar situation as Korsa. The scheme was meant to bring children from remote and inaccessible areas with few education opportunities to the block headquarters, where these residential schools, with furnished classrooms and playgrounds, are located.
Apart from education, the scheme aims to bring proper nutrition to children housed in these residential quarters.
Before the lockdown hit in March last year, half of those enrolled in schools in Dantewada district were in such residential schools, including the ashram schools set up by the government in the 19 tribal districts of the state. “Only 50% of the children were day scholars. Children also lived in tribal hostels, which are different from ashrams,” says a senior district official. The total number of children in residential schools in the state was around two lakh.
Officials fear that with these residential schools shut, more than 50,000 children who have no access to the Internet have slipped out of the net. “The entire point of them staying at Pota Cabin Schools was that they have no connectivity in their villages. Some of the senior students come sporadically to check if the schools will open anytime soon, but the younger children have not returned. There are no new admissions either,” says a warden in Bijapur.
Recently, student bodies held a protest in Koyalibeda block of Kanker, where they claimed that more than 3,000 children in that block alone had dropped out of school since the pandemic began.
In Bastar, officials fear that the 50,000-odd children now at home could veer towards Naxals. “They are educated enough to write banners, letters and posters for Maoists and yet young enough to be ideologically brainwashed,” a senior IPS officer in Bastar says. “During recent protests, we have seen a rise of children between the ages of 16-18, who are now being used as mouthpieces and shields. Most of them were enrolled in schools earlier.”
Security officials believe the Maoists have also strengthened their recruitment networks inside these inaccessible villages amidst the pandemic. “The entirety of 2020 provided Maoists ample time for recruitment. Parents send their children away from these regions either for gainful employment as farm hands or for education. But the pandemic has forced them to return,” says an official, adding that Maoists are also enrolling the children in the schools run by them that haven’t shut.
While denying that Maoists had strengthened their recruitment among school-going children, Bastar IG P Sundarraj confirms that a rising number of students are being seen at protests organised by Maoists. “We will try to bring these youth to the mainstream whenever the schools open,” he says.
Officials in Raipur say they hope to reopen the residential schools very soon, with the premises kept ready for whenever the students arrive. However, as an Education Department official says, they have to be extra careful as the chances of Covid infection are high among students sharing living quarters.
It’s been a fortnight already since the online classes for the new session began on June 16. The state government has announced rewards for students and teachers for initiatives to keep classes going. A long way from all that, Korsa says, “I liked going to school. I wanted to get out of Sukma, study to become a veterinarian. But it feels all too distant. How will I go back to school at the age of 20, if the schools don’t open till then?”