CHIEF MINISTER Mamata Banerjee’s ambitious Sabuj Saathi scheme — which provides free bicycles to all students from Classes IX to XII — has not only ensured they stay in school, but has also gone a long way to “enhance the general mobility of the population and of the girls in particular”, says a recent survey commissioned by the state backward classes welfare department.
The scheme, launched in 2015 to curb dropout rates, heralded a “huge success” in a first-ever study of its effects undertaken by Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust. It said that bicycles distributed among students are not only being used for schooling but also for several other purposes, such as going to the market, health centres, cinema or local fairs, and so on. “The bicycle, literally, is breaking many boundaries,” it adds.
Sabir Ahmed, a researcher involved in the study, says: “Apart from the obvious benefits… we were very surprised to find some unexpected effects. Because the scheme is one of universal coverage, it has created a feeling of inclusiveness and solidarity — irrespective of community. There is a sense of ownership at the grassroot level… each community monitors the scheme very closely. This means that leakages and inconsistencies of distribution are also minimal.”
While many states have adopted some model of providing free bicycles to students to facilitate their access to schools, only Bihar and Bengal have extended the facility to all students from Classes IX to XII, irrespective of social background, economic status, caste, religion and gender (see box). In his Budget speech of 2015-16, Finance Minister Amit Mitra had first announced that 40 lakh bicycles will be provided to students across Bengal. Only two districts were left out — Kolkata and Darjeeling. While in the first phase, students from Classes X to XII got bicycles, the second phase catered to Class IX students. In all, 3.42 lakh students have got bicycles. The third phase is being implemented at present.
Accessibility to high school education, across the country, has been a real problem, says the study. For example, of the 40,218 villages in Bengal, secondary and higher secondary schools are available in only 23 per cent and 16 per cent of the villages, respectively. While 15 per cent students from villages attend secondary schools, 29 per cent go for higher secondary education.
The scheme has also thrown up some interesting facts about the education system in Bengal, says the study. Of the 3.42 lakh students who had received bicycles, girls outnumber boys by 51:49 ratio — indicating that more girls are going to high secondary schools. “Around 30,000 more cycles have been distributed to girls, which we feel is substantial. Other government schemes like Kanyashree (where girls receive Rs 25,000 to complete schooling in addition to an annual stipend of Rs 700) has also assisted the education of the girl child in Bengal,’’ said Ahmed.
Only in four districts, girls have received less number of cycles when compared to boys — Purulia (42 per cent), Bankura (44 per cent), West Midnapore (45 per cent) and East Midnapore (49 per cent). “Fewer number of girl recipients indicate the existence of conditions that restrict them from going to high schools… East Midnapore, which has the highest literacy rate in the state, demands urgent policy attention. Also, why girls in particular districts (all in Paschimanchal) lag behind in pursuing high school education….” the study points out.
Another problem the study highlights is that while girls outnumber boys at the secondary level, the trend takes a reverse turn later. In other words, girls fail to maintain the pace they gather at the secondary level. While 55 per cent of girls study at Class IX, by the time they reach Class XII, the figure is down to 48 per cent. In contrast, boys’ participation grows — 45 per cent in Class IX to 52 per cent at Class XII.
Girls who tend to slip off the track are mainly Adivasis and Muslims. “Muslim girls face a number of social factors, such as child marriage… also, the number of Muslim boys not pursuing higher studies contribute to the dropout rate. The dropout rate among the Adivasi girls is much higher… The reasons include accessibility to schools… non-availability of schools that teach in their languages…,” said Ahmed. While 52 per cent Adivasi girls who have received the bicycles were found studying at Class IX, the figure dropped to 36 per cent at Class XII.
The study says the group that has most benefitted from the scheme are agricultural workers, who form 34 per cent of Bengal’s work force. Abjectly poor and unable to provide transportation to their children to go to school, the free bicycles have come as a boon to them. Moreover, the study has found that the bicycles are being increasingly used to avail private tuition.
However, a significant issue raised by students, the study says, is that the cycles they received required some additional fitting. Many have complained that they had to spend between Rs 100 to Rs 400 to make the cycles fit for riding. Moreover, the standard bicycle distributed cannot be used by differently-abled students, “hence, they are effectively excluded from the scheme,” the study adds.
It further mentions that some inconsistencies have arisen on how many have actually received the bicycles. For example, as per the office of the project officer-cum-district welfare officer (Backward Classes Welfare) in Malda, the number of eligible students in Class IX (session 2015) was 73,462. However, bicycles were distributed to 72,513.