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It Is Naïve Of The State Government To Expect That A Monthly Stipend Of Rs 100 Will Send Poor Girls Back To School, Says Parimal Bhattacharya Published 10.04.08, 12:00 AM

I am not sure if Lakshmi knows this. Last month, when the finance minister of West Bengal, Asim Dasgupta, was announcing on the assembly floor a monthly grant of Rs 100 for poor girls studying in classes VIII to XII, she was probably busy at home rolling bidis or cutting bindis from strips of coloured velvet. When I visited her family, living in a tin-roofed hut near Barasat, last January, I noted the only luxury item there: a portable black-and-white television set. They would probably switch it on late in the evening, after ‘hooking’ a connection from the roadside electric pole, to watch a Bengali film or a cricket match, not the telecast of the budget speech. In any event, would a monthly stipend of Rs 100 make Lakshmi return to the school she had left at Class VIII?

Most unlikely. She makes around Rs 20 a day from rolling bidis, cutting bindis or plucking out nylon threads from used car tyres. She also helps her mother in preparing and packaging food items that her father hawks in local trains. In other words, Lakshmi’s labour makes valuable contribution to the family’s income. This is the story of most girls in the area. As employment is shrinking in the organized sector, a huge labour-intensive informal sector is unfolding in the city’s fringes and suburbs, employing women and children.

So where do the eight out of ten girls, who drop out of state- run schools before they reach Class X, go? In the villages, they work as farm hands or look after the household while their parents go to other places as migrant labourers. In urban areas, they get sucked into the emerging informal sector. Many work as domestic help; some are married off; a few of them get trafficked. It is naïve to expect that this trend can be checked, and poor girls sent back to schools, with a sop of hundred rupees a month. Such a solution to the problem of school drop-out is disquieting.

A number of reports and surveys conducted in West Bengal in recent years corroborate an important fact: most parents, including the poor and the illiterate, want their children to be educated. Taking note of this, Amartya Sen, in his introduction to The Pratichi Education Report, has remarked: “We were struck by the reflective and mature nature of these radical aspirations.” Many working class people spend a large chunk of their income on their children’s education, including private tuition. In fact, lack of motivation is not the single major factor behind drop-out. If a girl from a poor family stops going to school, it is often because a combination of social and economic factors forces her to do so. Rather than distributing sops, it is time the government looked closely into these factors and worked towards creating an enabling environment, so that girls from poor families can continue with their studies.

Lakshmi’s father became a hawker when he lost his job at a Kankurgachhi glass factory; her two brothers work as construction labourers in Hyderabad. According to the latest National Sample Survey, nearly 93 per cent of country’s workforce belong to the unorganized sector; of these 40 per cent are in non-agricultural activities. The dismal performance of Bengal in implementing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is well-known by now. But living in an urban slum, Lakshmi’s father is deprived of even that mirage of a scheme. Remittances from her brothers and her father’s income both being irregular, the work that Lakshmi and her mother do helps the family stay afloat.

In a way, Lakshmi is lucky. She has studied up to Class VIII and can read and write. Most girls in her slum are illiterate and work as domestic help. Employing a child, even as domestic help, is a punishable offence under the Child Labour Prevention Act amended in 2006. But who cares?

A major paradox in the education scenario in Bengal is that while the drop-out rate in state-run schools is alarming, in recent years private educational institutions have mushroomed in urban as well as in semi-rural areas. Earlier, people used to blame the abolition of English teaching at primary level for this. Well, English has staged a return in state-run primary schools; but not the pupils. One such school, near the slum where Lakshmi lives, was a picture of desolation: enrolment was dwindling, the building was falling apart, four classes were packed into a room and a verandah. The students, surprisingly, comprised mostly of girls. Where did the boys go? It came out that many of the girls had brothers who went to a private English-medium school nearby. This is a phenomenon occurring in different parts of the state — a parallel education system that feeds on gender divide, even within the family. This could be the outcome of the conflict between affordability and radical aspirations of working-class parents. Whatever the reasons might be, it is the girl-child who has to bear the brunt. No wonder, in a report published by the child and family welfare department last year, 48 per cent of the girls surveyed in the state said that they wanted to be boys!

There are certain social and cultural factors working against the interest of the girl child, which make it difficult for the state to directly intervene. But the state can take a number of positive steps in order to create an enabling environment. A few years ago, in Himachal Pradesh, the state government worked at the panchayat level to popularize LPG cooking gas and piped water supply in the villages. This had a dramatic effect on the enrolment of girls in schools, as they were freed of their daily grind of collecting water and firewood.

But before the Bengal government can come up with such innovative measures, it needs to properly implement the various existing welfare schemes such as NREGS, Integrated Child Development Scheme and National Rural Health Mission. The problem of school drop-out is not a malady per se, but the symptom of a malady. A persistent cause of drop-out among children from the poorer sections is prolonged bouts of illness. But then, it is difficult to expect anything better, given the fact that only 44 per cent of children, according to the National Family Health Survey, receive the recommended vaccines.

If there was round-the-year work for her father, employment guarantee for her brothers, an effective social security scheme for her artisan mother, perhaps Lakshmi would not have stopped going to school. Educating a girl, even her illiterate parents know, is an investment for a better future, but only for those who can afford it. The rest of them are forced to strike a costly bargain with the present by paying with the sweat of their children.

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