From cargo to classrooms: Containers triggering ideas and opportunities

Experts say they are slowly gaining popularity as an eco-friendly, rapidly deployable, scalable, portable plug-and-play building solution.
A container school in UP’s Gorakhpur set up by Project OoSC (Out of School Children). (Sourced)
A container school in UP’s Gorakhpur set up by Project OoSC (Out of School Children). (Sourced)
Updated on Sep 06, 2021 10:18 AM IST
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New Delhi: The Delhi government recently unveiled two new modular Mohalla clinics made from shipping containers in Shakur Basti in northwest Delhi, the constituency of health minister Satyendar Jain, who said that if successful, the government intends to create many more such clinics in the future.

Due to problems in getting land, the government has been able to set up only 500 of the 1,000 new Mohalla clinics that it announced to build in 2015.

“We will build many more container clinics if we get positive feedback from the people. So far, the response has been great,” says Jain. “These clinics are portable, modular, and occupy less space. Besides, these new clinics are sturdy, so we would not have to face the problem of vandalism and theft that we were facing in many other clinics.”

The facilities in the new 350 sq ft air-conditioned clinic include a doctor’s room, waiting area, and pharmacy.

While the Capital will be using shipping containers on a large scale for a public infrastructure project for the first time, in the past few years they have been used to build portable schools, skill development centers, cafeterias, and even houses across the country. Experts say they are slowly gaining popularity as an eco-friendly, rapidly deployable, scalable, portable plug-and-play building solution.

According to World Shipping Council, there are about 18 million containers in the global fleet. A container, made of weathering steel, has a life span of 10-12 years and thousands go out of service every year.

In India, Safeducate, a Delhi-based training firm that proves skill training in logistics was among the first to convert retired shipping containers into classrooms.

“We have 25 skill development schools across the country, including one in Gurugram, made from shipping containers. We have trained over 10, 000 youngsters in these container schools,” says Divya Jain, founder and CEO, Safeducate.

The company’s training center in Binola, Gurugram, which was inaugurated in 2018, has been built with eight containers, and has classrooms, laboratories, and libraries, among other facilities. “The idea was to recycle discarded containers to develop eco-friendly and cost-effective education infrastructure,” says Jain.

Similarly, in 2015, Samarth Bharat Vyaspith, an NGO, and Thane Municipal Corporation built ‘Signal Shala’, a formal school under a flyover in the city. The first registered school under a flyover, it provides education up to the 10th standard and has classrooms, a science lab, and a computer lab---- all running from cargo containers.

“Our organisation was working with people who were living under a flyover in Thane and begged at the traffic signal there. There were over 52 children who lived with their families under the bridge, and they too were into begging. We wanted to prepare them for mainstream school, but realised that they could not follow the routine of a normal school,” says Bhatu Sawant, CEO, Samarth Bharat Vyaspith. “So, we thought of setting up a container school for them right under the flyover. We approached Thane Municipal Corporation which, after much convincing, decided to collaborate with us and provide free water, electricity, and security. ”

Six years on, many of his students have successfully passed Class 10, got professional diplomas, and are working in good companies, says Sawant, who now plans to open four more such schools under flyovers in Mumbai. “There has been rapid urbanisation, and so many flyovers have been built in cities. I think container schools are the perfect way to utilise spaces under them. The Maharashtra government appreciated our school and said it would replicate the model across Maharashtra,” says Sawant.

Very few people talk about the potential of container schools with the passion of Amreesh Chandra, an educationist and founder of Project OoSC (Out of School Children), under which he is setting up over 50 container schools across the country. Chandra announced the project in 2019 at the India Business Group Summit Awards in the British Parliament in London.

The first container school was inaugurated in a village near Gorakhpur by Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary-General during her visit to India in January last year.

Chandra says two more container schools will be operational in the next couple of weeks in Azamgarh and Maharajganj in UP. Covering an area of about 1000 square ft, each of these container schools boasts two large classrooms, an administrative office, and a backyard. The school in Gorakhpur had 80 students before it had to shut down last year due to the pandemic.

“ There are 138 million children in India who are out of school, and one of the reasons is lack of schools in their vicinity. I believe that recycled containers can help quickly create a large number of affordable, eco-friendly schools near where they live. A container school can be created in 100 days with all the furniture, once an area has been identified,” says Chandra. “All of our planned 50 schools would have been operational by now but for the pandemic. Now we now hope to complete them by 2023.”

Chandra says that he is also planning a university, with a building made out of containers. “Higher education is costly because of the huge costs involved in the construction of buildings. Container buildings can drastically bring down the cost,” he says.

While a university campus made from containers may be a thing of the future, ITS Dental College in Greater Noida has built a massive cafeteria called ‘Cafe Infinity’ on its sprawling campus. Built in 2019 from nine shipping containers, the café is spread over 4,800 sq ft area.

“The university wanted to create an eco-friendly and eccentric space and we suggested containers. In fact, the café’s name suggests the infinite possibilities of using containers in construction. India is one of the biggest shipping hubs. On average, container, has a life cycle of 12 years and recycling them is not quite easy, and most are discarded. So it is better to repurpose them,” says Rahul Jain, a Ghaziabad-based architect, who designed the café.

“ We need to understand that 50% to 60% of air pollution is caused by construction activities. The flexibility, modularity, and sustainability make shipping containers a perfect alternative to the conventional building structures,” he adds.

Saikat Maitra, vice-chancellor, Maulana Abul Kalam University of Technology (Makaut), in West Bengal, could not agree more.

In fact, his university has launched a research project, which explores how discarded shipping containers can be best used to build shops, schools, offices, and even low-cost houses. “From the engineering point of view, we are studying how these massive containers can be made modular, be better ventilated, insulated, and integrated together,” says Maitra. “We have created a provision store and a cafeteria within the campus as part of this research.”

He says that Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO) of West Bengal, a public sector undertaking, has approached the university for technical guidance on creating food courts and shops in New Town area in Kolkata with containers.

“There have been reservations about the aesthetic appeal of container buildings, but now people are realizing that this problem can be sorted with creativity and imagination. I believe that containers can be used for creating low-cost houses,” says Maitra. “Container structures are disaster-resilient and can be shifted to a different location if needed . Retired shipping containers contain a whole new world of possibilities.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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