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Girls in Bihar pedalling their way to education, empowerment

Jan 12, 2011

The Indian state of Bihar, previously notorious for high drop-out rates among girls, now sees confident young girls smartly dressed in uniforms riding to schools on their shining new bicycles, thanks to Chief Minister's Bicycle Scheme. With transportation costs drastically reduced, parents are no longer reluctant to send their girls to school.

Nivedita, 15, had a hidden desire. She wished her family could own a car, or any vehicle for that matter. But she knew her father, a private school bus driver, could never afford one.

Today, though, young Nivedita - one of five children - is the proud owner of a bicycle. She was presented her first pair of wheels by the Bihar government for having successfully passed her Class Nine examination from a local government school. These days she ferries her younger siblings to and from school even as she travels to her own school, Bankipore Balika Ucch Madyamik Vidyalaya, some three kilometres away from home which is at LCT Ghat in Manpura, Danapur, near state capital, Patna. Says Nivedita, "Not even in my wildest dreams had I ever thought I would own a bicycle. I spent an additional Rs 1,000 (US$1=Rs 45) to get a Hero expert bicycle so that all my brothers and sisters can also use it."

Though she is still unsure of being able to complete her higher studies, mainly because of the financial difficulties her large family faces, for now she can continue as "at least my transportation expenses have become much less."

Nivedita's mother, Manju, is very proud of her daughter. While her older children had to drop out of school due to financial reasons as well as social pressures - Nivedita's elder sister dropped out to get married at 17, even before she could finish her matriculation - Nivedita has changed this 'tradition'. Manju is also happy that her daughter is now independent. "It is her independence that has increased our self confidence," she says.

Nivedita's classmate Trisha, 14, is also quite a star in her locality of Rajapul near Manpura. A Class Ten student of Bankipore's High School For Girls, she too can be seen pedaling her way to school every morning.

Nivedita and Trisha are among the nine lakh girls who have received funds from the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana (Chief Minister's Bicycle Scheme For Girls) to buy a bike. Today, Trisha has been able to achieve an almost 90 per cent attendance level and is seriously preparing for the Class Ten Board examinations. She too comes from a large family - she is the youngest of four sisters and two brothers - and her father, Vinod Rai, a government employee, is "proud of his daughter for she is independent now".

Girls registering near-perfect attendance at school and proud parents who are eager to send their daughters off to study... in Bihar, this would have seemed an impossible scenario even a few years earlier. But it is not just a feather in the state government's cap; it is a happy development for all school-going girls as well.

The Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana - which has given a boost to female education and women's participation in society - dispenses money to all girls in government schools who, despite the odds, have managed to reach Class Eight with more than 80 per cent attendance. The idea is that a bicycle increases their mobility and enables them to travel free-of-cost to school, reducing at least one major family expense.

The scheme, widely described as Bihar Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar's dream project, was launched during his first tenure - he got re-elected for a second term in November 2010 with a resounding mandate. Though the scheme began in 2006, now its impact can be seen. According to Bilkis Jahan, principal of Bankipore's High School For Girls, "It is a revolution in itself. The confidence of the girls has risen sharply. There has been an entire personality transformation and their attendance has also increased remarkably."

This, in fact, was the whole idea behind the initiative. As Kumar has himself observed in his public addresses, it was to address the disturbing dropout rate among girls in the higher classes - they either give up their education for marriage or because it is unsafe for them to travel long distances alone on public transport - that the project was conceived.

Initially, the Human Resource (HR) Department invited tenders from cycle manufacturers where the least price quoted emerged as Rs 1,840 (US$1=Rs 44.6). To minimise the chances of corruption, the CM decided to hand over a cheque of Rs 2,000 directly to the beneficiaries. A list of schools was prepared and the funds were handed over to them. The school administration in turn got the girls to open a savings bank account and credited the amount there. The girls too have to deposit the original receipt of the bicycle, which is later sent to the ministry as a record. Now, many girls have added some more money to the initial sum to buy better bikes.

Surprisingly, those parents who had shied away from letting their girls travel alone are now encouraging them to ride bicycles. "It saves a lot of their time and spares them many of the inconveniences of getting to and from school. I think Trisha is more secure now as most of the girls from the area travel together, confidently and independently," observes her father.  

It is quite a sight every morning when girls, dressed smartly in their blue 'kurta' (tunic) and white 'dupatta' (long stole), ride off to school, especially in a state where the female literacy rate is almost half that of males and where more than 60 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18. 

But that is not to say that there are no attempts to use the bicycle money elsewhere. Reveals Bilkis Jahan, "There have been instances when the girl's family has used the fund for some other exigency. Nothing much can be done in this regard, seeing the impoverished backgrounds of these students. But then their applications are forwarded with the promise that they will buy the bicycle as soon as they are able to save money."

Of course, nothing can take away from the fact that "the bicycle revolution is a sign of silent social reform in Bihar". Says Gulfishan Perween, a social activist from Patna's Alamganj area, "Parents who could not afford transportation for their girls' schooling, now boast of the independence their daughters are enjoying. Girls are now plying their younger siblings to school, buying groceries for their mothers, and so on. It is definitely a sign of women's empowerment, of women gaining the confidence to participate in public life as equals."

Adds Dr Dayashankar Tiwari, Principal, Bapu Smarak Ucch Vidyalaya, Kadamkuan, Patna, "The law and order situation has also improved. With the participation of girls, the entire social outlook is changing. Earlier, parents had an excuse not to send their daughters to class, but now I have noticed that there is more than 90 per cent attendance, which is very unusual."

According to the state government, close to Rs 17.50 million have been spent in the last three years, with about 8,71,000 girls purchasing cycles in the state. This has led to a sharp fall in the dropout rate - from the earlier 2.5 million annually, the figure has come down to around one million today.

Says Anjani Kumar Singh, Principal Secretary, HR Department, "Bihar has a very low female literacy rate, low enrolment of girls, high dropout rate. To close the gender gap in schools we took many initiatives like distributing free uniforms and a cycle. We also launched the Akshar Anchal campaign for literacy among women. All these interventions have yielded results. Today, we have more girls than boys in school; the enrolment of girls has increased three times in the last four years. We have also recruited more women teachers than men."

Bihar, one of India's poorest states, is furiously pedaling its way to social change, with its girls riding high on success.

Source : WFS
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