Wheels of change in Bihar
‘Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna’ launched by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2006 may be a modest intervention but is leading to big changes
Fourteen-year-old Sulekha Kumari, a daughter of illiterate parents, is confident about pursuing her dream of becoming a government employee, as reaching school is no longer a problem for her. She pedals around 5 km every day from her village to Marwari High School at Bairgania in Sitamarhi district, to chase her dream, a much-treasured goal in one of the poorest states of the country.
Sulekha is not alone. Lakhs of schoolgirls in Bihar, just like boys, have a dream in their eyes to do something, and riding bicycles to their schools every day gives wings to those dreams, thanks to ‘Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna’ launched by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2006. The scheme entitles girls in classes 8, 9 and 10 to a free cycle from the state or Rs 2,000 to buy one which was later increased to Rs 2500 — mirroring a scheme started by Tamil Nadu but revolutionary all the same for a state like Bihar, where the girl child has traditionally received short shrift (as in most of India). The scheme has released a pent-up hunger for learning in schoolgirls and has brought a sense of urgency to them. They want to excel like never before.
Although several factors have contributed to this trend of girls showing willingness to go to school, social scientists have linked this welcome change in Bihar to the government-sponsored cycles programme. The results speak for themselves as school enrolment among girls in Bihar has not only increased in the last 10 years, the dropout rates have also drastically fallen. “Long distance from schools has often been cited as one of the major reasons behind poor enrolment of girls, but the cycle has taken care of that concern,” feels Chinmaya Kumar, country economist, India-Bihar programme, International Growth Centre.
Before the launch of this programme over 10 years ago, it was rare to find a schoolgirl riding a bicycle even on the streets of Patna. But now, one can watch scores of confident-looking schoolgirls pedalling away with gusto everywhere – from the narrow lanes of a remote village to the bustling roads of the cities across the state. The dropout rate among the schoolgirls had been very high in Bihar over the years. The girls, particularly those from rural areas, would often discontinue their studies beyond the primary or middle schools. Most of them were often married at an early age, which left them with fewer opportunities to contribute their bit towards economic development of society.
The signature scheme, which has changed the face of Bihar, is said to be very close to Nitish Kumar’s heart. “After taking the reins of the state, I kept thinking of various ways to reduce the dropout rate of students in general and the schoolgirls in particular. It was in 2006 that I decided to give away bicycles to all the schoolgirls of classes VIII, IX and X studying in government schools. I was sure that this incentive would go a long way not only in arresting the dropout rate of schoolgirls in the high schools but also be a significant step towards woman empowerment,” Kumar wrote in his blog posted on April 20, 2010.
According to Kumar, “It would be no exaggeration to say that the scheme has been an unqualified success. It has given me a lot of satisfaction since it has helped check the dropout rate of schoolgirls to a great extent across the state… This is, in fact, an affirmation of the fact that a small initiative can really go a long way in bringing about a big change. In Bihar, bicycles have now become an absolute instrument for social change which can be felt in any part of the state.”
The main aim behind the programme – which was later expanded to include boys as well – was to reduce gender gap in enrolment in schools. When at a public meeting, some boys complained to the Chief Minister about gender discrimination, Nitish widened the scheme so as to include even boys under the same cycle project. According to reports, the number of girls enrolled in class 9 till 2006 was around 1.5 lakh. After the launch of the scheme, the girls’ enrolment has now increased to over 8.25 lakh, more than seven times in the last 9-10 years. Since 2006-07, the state has recorded around 70 lakh beneficiaries from the scheme.
The most basic two-wheeler has not only brought the school closer to many girls, it has also changed some traditional notions. The responsibility of going to the local market is not confined to the boy child only, but even girls go there with ease to purchase household items. They have become much more confident now and talk about careers in public.
Such is the impact of the ambitious scheme that in the last few years, several prominent cycle manufacturing companies – Hero Cycles, Avon Cycles and TI Cycles – have tiptoed to Bihar and more companies are showing interest to set up their base in the state. Leading the pack is Hero Cycles, which has invested Rs 55 crore to set up a modern plant in Bihta Industrial Park, nearly 35kms from Patna, and employed over 250 people, the majority of whom are from the area. The mother cycle plant has brought two ancillary units – with a total investment of around Rs 25 crore – creating employment opportunities for another 150 people. The plant, the company’s first dedicated bicycle manufacturing unit outside Punjab, is a major step towards strengthening Hero Cycles’ leader position in the eastern market. Avon Cycles, which has a plant in Hajipur Industrial Estate, is also planning expansion to cater to the market.
Though the investments in cycle plants do not run into hundreds or thousands of crores, the benefits of such plants are aplenty for a state like Bihar, which hardly has any organised industry. The state can easily become another cycle manufacturing hub after Ludhiana where over 60 per cent of the people working are from Bihar. If the cycle firms make a beeline for Bihar it will augur well for the state, which faces the chronic problem of lack of employment in the organised sector.
The cycle scheme isn’t the only programme helping to keep girls in schools. Under the Mukhyamantri Balika Poshak Yojana, all girls studying in classes 6 to 8 are given Rs 700 each for school uniforms and study material. Over 3.6 million students have benefited from the scheme since it began in 2006. In 2009, the scheme was extended to girl students of class 3, 4 and 5.
It’s not just for the beneficiaries, the cycle scheme seems to be working for the political masters as well. The success of the programmes has ensured Kumar the support of those who have benefited from them. “No previous government ever thought about the girls and women in this way,” says Rajmangal Kushwaha, father of a class 10 student, adding, “We will prevail upon our villagers to prefer such leaders.” The Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance rode to victory with the support of the beneficiaries from the programme for which the government has spent more than Rs 1,500 crore. Even the last time, the Bihar CM had banked on this confidence among the girl child and the pride among their parents as the game-changer and that worked in his favor. Following the Bihar’s initiative, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in the run-up to the recent assembly elections in the neighbouring state, distributed 40 lakh cycles to high school students under Sabuj Sathi scheme that is said to have contributed to her success, especially in rural areas.
Even though the Bihar government seems to have done a good job of reaching girls to school, its record in quality of education is still quite dismal. Schools suffer from poor infrastructure. For many girls who wish to study ahead, the most serious question is how to continue after class 10. Dearth of reachable 10+2 schools and colleges, along with social attitudes to marriage, aggravates their problem.
The bicycle initiative of the Bihar government shows that any policy or programme, which is designed to serve real need of people and implemented well, translates into tangible improvements in life of targeted population. It is because of the inherent soundlessness of the program that more states are introducing this idea with suitable modifications.