Mousumi Mirdha was on the verge of discontinuing education after passing the higher secondary-level examination in 2016.
She lost her father at a very early age. Since then her maternal uncles, who are marginal farmers, had been supporting her school education despite their own economic hardship. Higher education was a costlier affair, and she did not wish to burden her uncles with her college expenses.
“I was upset not to be able to pursue education further. But there was no other option in sight. It was then that I received ₹25,000 under the Kanyashree Prakalpa. Without that money I would not have been able to pursue my studies,” said Mousumi, who completed her graduation with honours in Bengali from Sundarban Hazi Desarat College.
Payel Bauri had been through worse. Her father wanted to marry her off in 2017 when she was just in Class 8. With no regular income, incurring expenses for a girl child’s education was “too much of a luxury” for her father. “If not for the ₹25,000 incentive and ₹1,000 annual scholarship under the scheme, my education would have been over in class 8 itself,” recalled Payel, currently a student of Class 11 at Joykrishnapur High School.
There are many more such examples as 66,91,826 female students so far got benefits of the two-tier scheme launched by the West Bengal government in 2013.
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The scheme includes an annual grant of ₹1,000 for girl students between the age of 13 and 18 years and an one-time grant of ₹25,000 on completion of 18 years, conditional upon her remaining both unmarried and continuing studies till that age.
The scheme got international recognition in 2017, receiving the United Nations Public Service Award for “reaching the poorest and most vulnerable through inclusive services and participation.”
For Anima Karak of Jhargram district, more than financial problems, it was the arduous eight-kilometre journey to school on foot everyday that forced her to drop out of school five years ago.
“My school was in Belpahari which was about seven kilometres from our village Bhulaveda. Walking all the way to school was very tiring, particularly in summer. I used to be so tired that I could hardly follow any instruction in classes. As expected, I failed in Class 9 and that was the end of my schooling,” she said.
Many of her classmates had dropped out of school due to the same problem, she added.
But the problem was not restricted to girls alone.
Krishenendu Gayen, a student of Class 10 in Dayapur PC Sen High School, Gosaba in South 24 Parganas district, too had a similar drawback. The distance of his school from his home is about seven kilometres.
“I used to get scolded everyday for being late to school. That killed my interest in studies,” Gayen said. “The situation improved after I got a cycle from the government at Class 9.”
Krishenendu is one of the beneficiaries of the West Bengal government’s ‘Sabooj Sathi’ scheme introduced in 2015 under which free bicycles are provided to all students from Classes 9 to 12.
According to a survey conducted by the Backward Classes Welfare Department, the school dropout rate in rural Bengal has dropped by over 2,620 per cent since the scheme was launched.
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The scheme was particularly helpful because, as per the survey, around 54 per cent of villages in the state did not have secondary and higher secondary schools. Students from 37 per cent of these villages walk up to at least five kilometres everyday to reach schools.
About 85 lakh students have so far received bicycles under the scheme which bagged an international award earlier this year. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), out of 800 projects from across the globe, picked ‘Sabooj Sathi’ as the best scheme under the e-government category in September this year.
Both the schemes aimed at reducing school dropout rates in the state. The success of the schemes got reflected in the recent Annual State of Education Report (ASER) 2020. According to the report, released last month, the school dropout rate in the state declined from 3.3 per cent to 1.5 per cent while it went up from 4 per cent to 5.5 per cent at the national level in the past one year.
According to the report, West Bengal also holds the first position in the country in terms of textbooks provided to the students, with 99.7 per cent coverage.
The decline in the dropout rate was possible due to the continuous efforts of the state government to encourage students to continue with their studies, said Aveek Majumder chairman of the state’s Syllabus Committee.
But, here’s the problem…
All is not, however, well in West Bengal’s education scenario.
The gross enrolment ratio in higher education for the age group 18–23 years has increased from 15 per cent in 2012-2013 to 18.7 per cent in 2018-2019, according to a latest survey. But the figure is much less than the national average of 26.3 per cent.
The number of colleges per lakh population in the age group of 18-23 years is just 12, with only 1,341 colleges in the state, whereas the national average is 28. The average enrolment per college in West Bengal is 1,170, whereas the national average is only 698.
West Bengal has around 40,500 villages but only just about 8,000 schools for primary, secondary and senior secondary level.
The state government allocated 17.6 per cent of its expenditure for education in 2020-21. The allocation, though is higher than the average expenditure of 15.9 per cent (as per 2019-20 budget estimate) allocated for education by states, it is lower than the state’s own allocation of 18.2 percent of its total expenditures in the previous fiscal.