Bicycles have been making a tremendous impact on polls - and not just as an election symbol. The SAD-BJP combine, which secured a record-making victory in the 2012 Punjab assembly polls, had them as part of its populist bouquet for girls in elementary and higher classes.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) used free cycles for girls to bolster his prospects in rural areas.
But the Centre, which first allowed funds for free bicycles back in 2004 to curb the dropout rate among girls at the elementary level, will no longer provide financial support for the scheme.
The union ministry of human resource development (MHRD) has decided not to grant funds to Punjab and Haryana for free bicycles for girls of classes 6 to 8 under its flagship programme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, for elementary education. And the two states will have to arrange funds from their own budget.
Punjab, which is running its Mai Bhago Vidya Scheme for girls of senior secondary classes, was getting financial support from the Centre for providing free cycles to 6,000 girls of upper primary classes, while Haryana has been distributing cycles among 20,000 girls on an average every year under the programme to help them continue their education.
The girls, who take admission in Class 6 and have to travel to another village to study in the absence of a middle school in their own village, are eligible for the bicycle.
However, there is a rider: the travelling distance to qualify for a free cycle is 1.5km in Haryana and 2.5km in Punjab. In 2011-12, the Centre had allowed about Rs 4.5 crore for 21,000 bicycles to Haryana under the girls' education scheme on a cost-sharing basis, with the ministry bearing the bulk of the cost.
The state had proposed almost an equal number this year too. Similarly, Punjab was granted funds for about 6,000 bicycles last year.
"The free cycles were given to motivate girls to continue education at the upper primary level. The initiative has shown positive results, but we will not give funds for free cycles to Punjab, Haryana and other states henceforth. The states were informed well in advance. The programme's objective is to introduce innovative activities. It is for the states to sustain these efforts. Also, our focus is quality of education and not procurement," an MHRD official told Hindustan Times.
As a result, if the two states want to continue the scheme, they will have to use their own funds. When contacted, director general of school education, Punjab, Ashok Singla said the state government would take the decision on funding of free cycles to girls of elementary classes. In Haryana, too, the state authorities are yet to take a call on the matter.
Haryana was probably the first state to start this innovative scheme when IAS officer Rajesh Khullar introduced free bicycles for girls of Class 6 during the Om Prakash Chautala regime in 2004-05 to deal with the problem of high dropout rate and retention among girls due to lack of access to schooling in their own villages.
Though the state also later introduced it for students of higher classes in a limited way, the initiative caught the fancy of Bihar, Punjab and other states where governments are providing free cycles to girl students in a big way and have reaped electoral benefits too.