The Sunday Story Launched in 2006 by the JD(U)-BJP government at the time, the scheme provided money to all girls who enrolled in Class IX through their schools to buy themselves a cycle.

The first independent, scientific evaluation of the impact of Bihar’s cycles-for-girls programme has shown that the scheme significantly improved female school enrolment and substantially reduced the gender gap in secondary school enrolment. The study, by Karthik Muralidharan, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, and Nishith Prakash, an economist at the University of Connecticut, however did not find improvements in learning outcomes.

Launched in 2006 by the JD(U)-BJP government at the time, the scheme provided money to all girls who enrolled in Class IX through their schools to buy themselves a cycle. The scheme was not a standard cash transfer since it required families to provide receipts to show they had bought a cycle. Since it also required that girls be enrolled in Class IX, the authors of the study describe the program as a ‘Conditional Kind Transfer.’

Prof. Muralidharan is part of a growing group of economists, including MIT economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who have argued for more evidence-based policy-making, evaluating schemes to see what works and what doesn’t. The success of the scheme in Bihar, and its specific design features, indicate that the scheme is scalable, the authors say.

In a recent working paper published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors report that the cycle programme increased the probability of a girl, aged 14 or 15 being, enrolled in Class IX by 30%, and reduced the gap between boys and girls in age-appropriate secondary school enrolment by 40%. The age 14 is significant because girls’ enrolment in India sees a sharp drop-off around the time of puberty.

For their study, the authors used the 2007-8 District Level Health Survey (DLHS) data and official enrolment data, with boys of the same age in Bihar (who were not eligible for the programme) and neighbouring Jharkhand providing the comparison groups. To isolate whether it was the cycle programme that was causing the improvements in enrolment rather than some other factor, the authors show that enrolment increased mostly in villages where the nearest secondary school is over 3 km away, “suggesting that the mechanism for program impact was the reduction in the time and safety cost of school attendance made possible by the bicycle.”

Their evaluation also found that Bihar’s cycle programme was more cost-effective at increasing girls’ enrolment than a comparable conditional cash transfer program in Pakistan, suggesting that the scheme had spill-over effects that went beyond the value of the cycle, including improved safety as a result of girls cycling to school in groups, an increased demand in the girls for education, and some loosening in patriarchal social norms that restrict female mobility.

Leakages were low, partly as a result of the universal nature of the scheme, and while households could have potentially diverted the money to spend it on something else, this probably did not happen “because of the public ceremonies for cash disbursal, the requirement of receipts, and the social stigma of selling the bike,” Prof. Muralidharan said. The highly visible nature of the programme, which had the public backing of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, had an impact on the extent of utilisation.

Learning outcomes, as measured by performance on the Class X board exam, did not improve, however. Prof. Muralidharan said that in this context, he was less concerned about learning outcomes since the data came just two years after the program. “In the case of secondary education for girls, I am less worried that we didn’t see a positive impact on learning in two years because the enrolment rates were so low, that getting enrolment up would be the first step followed by a focus on quality,” Prof. Muralidharan said in an email to The Hindu. “On the other hand, I worry more about learning outcomes in primary schools because enrolment is over 95% and learning levels are flat over the past eight years, and there is no evidence that more business as usual spending is going to help much,” he said.

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