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Vaishali/Patna: Bihar has a refreshing new motif: girls in uniform on shiny new cycles, confident and assured, simply because they go to school.

A little over three years ago, the Bihar government launched the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana—the chief minister’s cycle scheme for girls. The plan entitled girls in class IX and X to a free cycle from the state or Rs2,000 to buy one—mirroring a scheme started by Tamil Nadu, but revolutionary all the same for a state such as Bihar, where the girl child has traditionally received short shrift (as in most of India).

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What might have seemed a populist and seemingly empty gesture has actually brought about a revolution in a state known not so long ago for its crime, lack of development and a chief minister known more for his rhetorical bombast. It was his much less flamboyant successor Nitish Kumar who kicked off the cycles for girls programme.

The numbers reflect a dramatic impact: Since 2007-08, Bihar has spent Rs174.36 crore on cycles for 871,000 schoolgirls. Girls enrolling in schools in the state have shot up from 160,000 in 2006-07 to 490,000 now.

Dropouts among girls declined to one million from about 2.5 million in 2006. The plan has released a pent-up hunger for learning. It’s brought in a “sense of urgency in (the) girls and they want to excel. By providing them bicycles, the government has helped us groom their talents," says Manisha Ranjan, a biology teacher in High School Desari in Bihar’s Vaishali district, 55km from Hajipur, the district headquarters.

Sometimes the most obvious solutions are also the right ones, acting as instruments of change. For one, the cycles have bridged distances to schools, and secondly, have given girls in a largely patriarchal society a sense of independence and of purpose.

Priyanka Kumari of Khoksa Kalyani village, formerly an occasional schoolgoer, now pedals 8km daily to school. “Now, I have become regular and punctual," she says. She wants to become a doctor.

“These girls now talk about careers," says Ram Balak Rai, principal of High School Desari. “They have become much more confident," he adds.

Of the 974,000 students who appeared for the state board’s class X exams, 400,000 were girls. Of these, 75,136 got a first class, more than double last year’s 37,708. Each of these girls is entitled to an incentive of Rs10,000.

Among those in the first division is Khusbhoo Kumari, a beneficiary of the cycle scheme from Bagaun village in Katihar district, around 340km south-east of state capital Patna. She came second in her class X exams.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou), a distance education institute, is planning a documentary on how she overcame her struggles to achieve the distinction.

“The scheme is very close to my heart," says chief minister Kumar. “I have no hesitation to say that this scheme has played a significant role in bringing about a positive change."

“Nothing gives me a greater sense of fulfilment of a work well done than seeing a procession of school-bound, bicycle-riding girls," he said. “It is a statement for social forward movement, of social equality and of social empowerment."

The cycle scheme isn’t the only programme helping to keep girls in schools. Under the Mukhyamantri Balika Poshak Yojana, all girls studying in classes VI-VIII are given Rs700 each for school uniforms and study material.

Over 3.6 million students have benefited from the scheme since it began in 2006.

In 2009, the scheme was extended to girl students of class III, IV and V as well.

The success of the programmes has ensured Kumar the support of those who have benefited from them.

“No previous government ever thought about the girls and women in this way," says Neha, a class X student of High School Desari. “We will prevail upon our villagers to prefer such leaders."

Sakshi Suman, 16, wants to be a doctor. She ranked 10 in the state board’s class X exams, and fifth among the girls, with a score of 89.4%. A beneficiary of the free cycle scheme for girl students, she pedalled 6km daily to school. “The scheme has really motivated the rural girls and inculcated a sense of competitiveness," she says. “It also helps in saving time." She has now set her eyes on medical school and has moved to Patna to train for the examination.

Pinki Kumari, 15, a class X student of High School Desari, had to trek 14km to school. When she got back home, she would have to help her mother with daily chores. “At the end of the day, it became tiring and attending school became a ritual. I hardly got any time to study," she says. Pinki’s father, Anil Sharma, a local electrician, had wanted her to get married early. He had to give up the plan in the face of his daughter’s determination to study after she got a free cycle from the government. Pinki now reaches school in 15 minutes. “I also want to join medical coaching," she says, “like Sakshi."

Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Mint and the Hindustan Times to track and understand policy reforms that will, if they are successful, change the very way in which India goes about its efforts to create an inclusive and progressive country.

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