Among several welfare initiatives taken by our government over the past four years, the ‘Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna’ is very close to my heart. It has changed the face of Bihar with lakhs of schoolgirls riding bicycles to their schools every day with a purpose.
Prior to the launch of this project more than three years ago it was rare to find a schoolgirl riding a bicycle even on the streets of Patna. But now, you 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.
Under this scheme, a schoolgirl gets a cheque of Rs 2,000 upon passing class VIII to buy a bicycle so that she can go to school every day.
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.
Take a look at the figures of the past three financial years to measure the success of this scheme. In 2007-08, our government spent Rs 32.60 crore to enable 1.63 lakh schoolgirls to buy bicycles; in 2008-09, we allocated Rs 54.43 crore towards this project facilitating purchase of the same by 2.72 lakh schoolgirls and in the year 2009-10, the number of beneficiaries rose to 4.36 lakh who bought bicycles worth Rs 87.33crore. To sum up, our government spent Rs 174.36 crore in the past three years to make 8.71 lakh schoolgirls proud owners of bicycles which they are all using to educate themselves now.
These are not mere statistics. 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 a veritable instrument for social change which can be felt in any part of the state.
The dropout rate among the schoolgirls has been very high in Bihar over the years. The girls, particularly those from rural areas, often discontinue their studies beyond the primary or middle schools. Most of them are often married at an early age, which leave them with fewer opportunities to contribute their mite towards economic development of society.
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.
When our government had taken over, the number of dropouts in the schools in the state was a staggering 25 lakh. Today, it has come down to around 10 lakh only. I have no hesitation to say that this scheme has also played a significant part in bringing about this positive change.
Many people have called it a ‘revolutionary’ concept and asked me when did I first think of this project? To tell you the truth, I got the idea while I was at an official programme organised by the Patna district administration in 2006. On that occasion, I had distributed a few bicycles among children from the underprivileged sections of society. When I handed over the keys to them, I could see happiness all over their faces.
The memories of those happy faces of poor children remained with me long after the ceremony was over. Soon, I held a meeting with senior officials of the Human Resource department asking them to work out a plan for distribution of free bicycles among all high school girls.
The department promptly invited tenders from the companies and the lowest quoted price was Rs 1,840 for each bicycle.
The officials of the department advocated for bulk purchase of bicycles and their distribution through official machinery. They also suggested that each bicycle bear the insignia of the Bihar government.
But I did not approve of the ideas. I thought that purchase of bicycles through tenders might give rise to corruption in future. Instead, I was in favour of handing over money through cheques directly to the beneficiaries. I thought it would not only simplify the entire process but also make the scheme transparent.
I, therefore, asked the then secretary of the Human Resource department to add Rs 160 to the lowest quoted price for each bicycle and launch the project straightaway.
Looking back, I derive a lot of satisfaction from the success of this project. It has brought about a real transformation in the field of girls’ education in Bihar. Now, our government has extended this scheme for schoolboys as well. Wherever I travelled in the state over the past three years, I used to find girls bubbling with enthusiasm but the boys looked downcast because they were not getting bicycles. But now, they have no reasons to complain.
A remarkable aspect of this project is that this has benefited students from all sections of society. It does not exclude anybody on the basis of caste, creed or economic background. The only eligibility criterion is that the beneficiary should be studying in Class VIII and above in a government-run school.
I have always believed that any society cannot progress unless its women progress -- and the women in any society cannot progress unless they are educated. This scheme is a small step in that direction.
This project personifies the winds of change blowing across the state today. Its long-term impact will be felt in a few years from now. But I have no hesitation to say that this has already helped Bihar emerge as a vibrant state which truly believes in empowering its women through various ways. Educating girls is one of them.