In a dusty village, freedom courtesy a two-wheel drive
The Bihar government is handing out cycles to girl students to keep them in school — and perhaps get their vote when they come of age just ahead of the 2011 Assembly elections. Ruchira Hoon reports.india Updated: Mar 18, 2009 00:59 IST
Most youngsters want a bike, so they can cycle around with friends, go on long trecks. For 16-year-old Ruby Kumari, though, her bicycle is her life.
Her village of Sudhava Balua in Naxal-affected Paliganj is a good 3 kilometres from her school in Ular, a dusty village 50 kilometres north of Patna.
"My parents were always afraid for me. There was talk of pulling me out of school," says Ruby, who is chasing her dream of becoming a government official. "But now, with my cycle, I can travel faster and I feel safer too."
Ruby is now enjoying a break after her Class 10 Board exams.
Had it not been for her bicycle, she would probably never have got to secondary school - the female literacy rate here is 37.5 per cent.
Over 3,000 students in Class 9 and 10 have been given bicycles by the state government here since 2007, under Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's Cycle Project, a campaign to try and stem the high-school dropout rate for girls.
"Girls aged 14 to 18 in Bihar are constantly facing social taboos, safety issues and problems with travelling. We wanted to ensure that they continue to study, which is why the Cycle Project was introduced," says Kiran Kumari, district secretary officer (Education, Patna). "So far, we have distributed cycles in 196 government-aided schools and 221 minority and Sanskrit schools as well as madrassas."
But most of the cycles have been given to girls from lower caste and Dalit families, giving the Janata Dal (United) a presence in sections where it is concerned about losing votes to Ram Vilas Paswan, a former Union minister and Dalit powerhouse, and Lalu Prasad, who has dropped the Yadav from his name to try and appeal to the 14 lakh Dalits in the state.
If you're wondering why Classes 9 and 10… well, the Assembly elections are in two years, the same time the older ones come of age.
The JD (U) is apparently hoping their largesse will still be fresh in their minds when they walk into those polling booths for the first time.
Back at Ular, young girls are practicing unsteadily on their brand new metal steeds.
As they get more confident, they start moving faster, stronger, further.
"The cycle has made me a different person, and made my parents see me differently too," says Ruby. "I think I am inching towards freedom."