Jaipur, India – Ruchika kickstarts a bike, drives on bumpy village lanes, draws attention of all passers-by, faces scorn by old guards but never misses her school. This is an unusual sight not only in her village but generally country wide. One would find only a handful of urban or rural girls riding a sturdy motor bike as they are built for men. But Ruchika got it as a gift from her grandfather Chatar ji. Chatarji is a mine worker who would rather make her independent and break all old notions attached to upbringing a girl child by creating an enabling environment for her studies and household work contribution both. From milking cows, buffaloes and goats to cleaning home, Ruchika does it all when home and in school she is a bright sporty student. She plays Kabaddi and participates in racing competitions and dreams to become a police officer.
Reaching another village, seeing another tribal school, another reality, it is here where Saroj lives. She is also an adolescent and had lost her father at a young age. Living with her younger sister and mother who barely earns enough through daily wage work, their lives may not be easy but social security and direct benefit transfer schemes through bank accounts have brought some comfort. They have used this support money to construct their house, to pursue studies and to support some of their basic needs through the money received. However, delayed benefits and tricky processes make it all appear so insufficient still. With Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) number 4 (Quality Education) and 5 (Gender Equality) set for the world, India is already chasing the national goal of hundred percent enrollment of girls in schools in the next 5-6 years. They are stepping into higher education and increased participation in the workforce and the economy.
Though Saroj has no luck as Ruchika’s, but both enjoyed as much when they got promoted to ninth standard, as that made them eligible to get a bicycle for free as part of a government scheme in their state that was introduced to promote girls’ enrollment in government schools.
For Saroj it meant saving much of her time to keep a balance between household work and studies. For Ruchika it was a means to save her and siblings from the disgrace of frequent warnings from the school for reaching late as the distance of 2.4 miles would take time to cover on foot. It also built trust in her ability to do more with this new found freedom of pedaling a bicycle to school. Her school Principal Dr Govind Singh Shaktawat posted in an interior tribal belt of Udaipur (lake-city of India) and was awarded for his innovative leadership shares with pride that Ruchika is an inspiration for all the girls who are initially hesitant in riding bicycles or to overcome their fears. He also gives credit to the government scholarship schemes which helps keep girls in schools and instill interest in studies to dream for a better and brighter future.
In villages with tough terrains and long distances, a bicycle is a boon. Wherever it has been tried in the world, it has proved absolutely transformative. Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Modi had this scheme of Bicycle for School Girls launched back in 1995, and now most of the Indian states including Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kartanaka, Maharashtra, Assam, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan have similar schemes which have benefited millions of school girls. An impact study of Bihar schools reveal that cycle programme increased age-appropriate enrollment in secondary school by 32 percent and reduced corresponding gender gap by 40 per cent. This also led to 18 per cent increase in the number of girls who appear in secondary school exams and a 12 per cent increase in those who clear the exam. When the choices of girls must matter most, colour of bicycles is also a matter of politics in these times where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government prefers saffron paint and Congress government chooses to change it to all black. It would be better if governments would rather have the beneficiaries choose the colour and quality of their bicycles and see things from their lens.
At this juncture, when the entire education system awaits overhauling to meet global and national needs, the newly formed government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the centre has introduced ‘National Education Policy (NEP) Draft – 2019’, the report of which was submitted on May 31, 2019 by the committee Chairman Dr K Kasturirangan, former Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chief. It was eagerly awaited in the last term of the current government as it was part of the BJP manifesto and after the release of the draft, it has drawn ire from the opposing ideologues and critiques of the ruling party when language issue became a bone of contention. However, the Policy draft was shared in public domain inviting suggestions, and citizens and interest groups have been engaging and responding actively.
In the current context of access to education for girl child, the 640 page policy (Chapter 6, point 6.2.1) refers to bicycles, direct benefit transfer, scholarships, hygiene and toilets as a way to enhance their enrollment in school and empower them. The school enrollment has definitely gone up significantly in past years with concerted efforts to fill gender gaps. In 2006 while there were 10 percent Girls in the age of 11-14 years out of school, the figure has dropped down significantly to 4 percent and obstacles in accessing education like toilets have also been addressed through different schemes and the toilets in schools have also increased considerably. As per a reply in Parliament, out of total government schools in India there are 1.93 percent Girls schools (20,977) and 2.76 Boys schools (28,713) without toilets now.
As per government data, under Swacch Vidyalaya scheme the toilets were constructed and made functional in more than 261,000 schools including 191,000 girls’ toilets. Hygiene, toilet, bicycle and scholarship targets are on priority for all state governments, but the quality of services and impacts of benefits also needs to be assessed well to chalk out a time bound plan to bring Girls up on the ladder.
NEP-2019 also suggests bicycle as a measure (point 6.2.3) for the safety of girls as this will remove part of barrier in their way by ensuring mobility. Safety of girls of all ages, from the unborn to infant to young is definitely urgent concern in all parts of India with more cases being reported and reacted upon strongly by the citizens. Apparently our society and governing systems both have failed in ensuring the safety of girls inside and outside homes, there is a need to channelize all efforts to celebrate young role models in villages who are kicking hard the ingrained stereotypes and silencing the sarcasm by biking their own way with motor led speed.