WEST BENGAL: Tapashi Sardar, a Class XI student at Jhargram district, says her elder sister, Dipali, had dropped out of school after writing her Class X examination in 2013 as the nearest higher secondary school to their village, Bhulaveda, was in Benpahari, nearly seven km away.
“I knew I would not meet my sister’s fate when I received a bicycle from the government under the ‘Sabooj Sathi’ scheme,” she says. Dipali could not pursue her higher education because the road to her school cuts through a dense forest.
“But now, I travel the same distance on my cycle,” Tapashi says while rubbing off the dust that had accumulated on it. Class X student Shampa Mahato, a resident of Indpur in Bankura, another beneficiary of the scheme, says: “My school is located five kilometres from my house. The hour-long journey on feet can now be covered in merely 25 minutes on the bicycle.”
A brainchild of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the Sabooj Sathi scheme, which provides free bicycles to all students from Classes IX to XII, was rolled out in 2015.
With a total outlay of Rs 2,000 crore, the scheme, which has already covered more than 73 lakh students, aims at one crore-target. A survey conducted in 2019 by the state Backward Classes Welfare Department found that the scheme has gone a long way to enhance the general mobility of the population and girls in particular. Last month, the project won the prestigious World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) awards of the United Nations. The name Sabooj Sathi – Sabooj, the word for ‘green’ also implies ‘children’ in Bengali, and ‘sathi’ means ‘companion’, hence ‘Sabooj Sathi’ or ‘children’s companion.’
“The bicycles instilled a sense of security among girls. Walking back home after sundown, especially in winters, would make girls feel insecure. A bicycle helped build their confidence. Riding on a bicycle, even in ill-lit roads, would make them feel more secured,’’ says Piyali Nandi, an assistant teacher at Kajipara High School in North 24-Parganas district. At Domohani Kelejora High School in Asansol, a teacher says the Sabooj Sathi came as a boon for girl students, many of whom dropped out after Class X board examinations.
“Lack of proper public transport is one of the key factors contributing to the high school dropout rate. Parents preferred to marry off their daughters at a younger age than letting them make hourlong journey to school and back,” the teacher said. Nearly 40 per cent of the girl students in the school used to drop out after completing their secondary education.
“After the state government project was rolled out in 2015, it has reduced to 10 per cent,’’ the teacher added. The average girl students’ dropout rate after their secondary education in the state is between 45-50 per cent.
According to the state Backward Classes Welfare Department, which works for the social, economic and cultural development of the people belonging to SC and OBC in the state, the school dropout rate in Bengal villages had dropped by 20-25 per cent in the last four years.
The survey conducted to assess the social impact of the project also found that Sabooj Sathi had helped boost confidence among girls, particularly in rural pockets, improved dropout rate among students of Class IX, and also curtailed early marriages of girls.
The survey also found that around 54 per cent of villages in the state did not have secondary and higher secondary schools and of them, students from 37 per cent villages have to walk up to five kilometres or more to access the schools. West Bengal has around 40,500 villages.