The Sunday Story The power of the bicycles to confer economic and social freedom even in the age of the automobile remains undiminished. Bihar is using it to cut the dropout rate for girls. Bicycles and safe roads are a winning combination.

While she was on her way to school one morning, Smriti’s bicycle brushed against a speeding truck, and she fell to the ground. After a few stitches on her injured elbow, she was back in class within no time. Her teachers at the Rajkiya Balika Uccha Madhyamik Vidyala (State Girl’s High School) at Patna’s Gardanibagh marvelled at her pluck.

“She went and got her injuries treated all by herself,” said a schoolteacher, who wished not to be quoted. “The cycle has given these girls a lot of confidence and mobility. Many students come from far off villages. Tomorrow, they will have the confidence to ride ‘scooties’ in the city,” she said.

Smriti, a Class X student, got a cycle under the Bihar government’s cycle programme. Launched in 2006, a year after Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister, this signature scheme, aimed at improving student retention and preventing dropouts, has seen visible results.

Girls riding the bike to school have become a common sight across the State. Pinky Kumari, another Class X student from Zutta village in Muzaffarpur district, pedals five km “on a bad road” to reach school. She is back home by afternoon, saving nearly an hour a day, earlier spent on the walking up that distance to and fro.

“Earlier, it used to be evening before Pinky reached home,” her grandmother Devkala Devi told The Hindu on the phone. “It is a long walk. The cycle has indeed facilitated the commute.”

The girl students at the Gardanibagh school gave a resounding nod to the cycle. “It is a big help. Even to take an auto to school we had to walk a considerable distance to the auto stand. Plus, in the morning, autos are difficult to find,” said Nandini Kumari.

The school gets students from Phulwari, Ranipur, Pathani, Mithapur, Beur jail area, which are some of the distant areas of Patna. “Many of these places are so much in the interior that you have to walk for half-an-hour to the auto stand,” said teachers.

Long distances, poor and insufficient public transport and bad roads make the commute to school for students across Bihar a daunting task, thereby resulting in poor attendance.

“The road around my school is very bad. I would not have left studies had I not got a bicycle, but I would certainly have skipped school a lot,” said Navyana Khatun from Sirahi village in Samastipur district.

Teachers concur that with the mobility the cycle has given girl students, there has been a marked improvement in attendance.

“This is true especially for girls. Their attendance has improved by nearly 25 per cent,” said Muninderji, a teacher from Sitamarhi.

In 2012, there was a widespread hue and cry over the government’s decision to add a clause of 75 per cent attendance. “It was meant to check duplication,” pointed out Lalima, programme officer, Planning and Accounts, Patna. Many parents, officials said, enrolled their children in more than one government school to get the entitlements of students at different schools. The criterion of 75 per cent attendance stopped that.

Government officials said the attendance clause and the public distribution of funds have been the chief reasons for the scheme to remain free of corruption. A series of checks has been put in place to ensure against any leaks.

“The entitlement is known to everybody. The fund distribution is done at a public function in school, the schedule of which is signed by the mukhiya (village head), the MLA and the MP. It is all in the open,” Amarjit Sinha, principle secretary, Education, told The Hindu. To ensure that the money is utilised for the purchase of cycles, students are required to submit receipt to the schools.

“It is an empowering scheme,” said Mr. Singh. “To see groups of girls riding their cycles to school, such a beautiful sight! Collectives of girls and women are emerging.”

However, the cycle programme is not free of lacunae. Many students who came from remote places could not fulfil the attendance criteria. While they deserved the cycle the most, they were left out of the scheme.

“We have five sections in Class IX of about 60 students each. But only seven out of sixty students got cycles,” pointed out Ekta Kumari, who herself did not make it. But she agreed that more girls were coming to school “because of the cycle.”

Political rivalries at the village level also lead to schemes getting misused, pointed out Gauri Kumari of the All-India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch. “We have seen if one party is strong in a panchayat, girls from areas where it does not enjoy support do not get the cycles,” she said.

Some like 20-year-old Rupa, a disabled person, left school after Class VIII, since she did not receive a tricycle. The tricycle scheme comes under the Social Welfare department. “I wanted to study further and become a teacher. When I was small it did not matter, but after class eight it became difficult. A tricycle would have helped me continue school,” she said.

What next?

While the Bihar government seems to have done a good job of reaching girls to school, its record in quality of education is quite dismal. For many girls who wish to study ahead, the most pressing question is how to continue after Class X. Lack of accessible high schools and colleges, along with social attitudes to marriage, compound their problem.

“After Class X, the girls will have to travel 14 km on the national highway to do their plus two. They can’t do it on a cycle. There are private buses, but after the Delhi rape incident, guardians are scared to send them on buses. There is a threat of kidnapping and rape on the way. The parents send their wards to school till the village level, but after that they stop. The government should think of taking these girls a step further, perhaps provide State transport,” said Rinku Devi of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association from Muzaffarpur.

In the existing state itself, schools suffer from poor infrastructure. Thousands of them do not have their own buildings. In the Gardanibagh school itself, you have two teachers teaching two sections simultaneously in the same classroom. Hygiene is a far cry. Girls contribute their money to engage a toilet cleaner and sweep their classrooms themselves.

A severe shortage of teachers has taken a toll on the students who have either turned to private school, coaching classes or dropped out. Moreover, 3,000 of the 4,000 schools in the State do not provide Plus-Two. The State government now plans to recruit 35,000 teachers, Mr. Sinha said.

RELATED NEWS

Wheels of freedomSeptember 29, 2013

More In: Lead | Opinion