....Kolkata: Sonia Parveen had just stepped into her teens. She had big dreams—complete school, train and get a job as a nurse or a police officer. All of a sudden she got a marriage proposal from a slightly elderly man, but well-settled in life.
For a family of eight completely dependent on the income of Sonia’s father, an autorickshaw driver, nothing could have been better news. But Sonia resisted.
“My parents did not talk to me for days. We are so poor that marriage is always considered a better option than education, even though marriages landed many girls in uncertain and unhappy life," Sonia said between making cow-dung cakes. She will be taking her board examinations in a month.
Sonia’s village Arijullapur in North 24 Parganas district wakes up to the crackle and laughter of over a thousand girls cycling their way to school, Arijullapur Siddiqa High Madrasah.
“It has been possible to make one-fourth of the population, especially girls, school-bound. This is largely because of the government’s Kanyashree Prakalpa—annual scholarships and one-time grant to encourage girl students of poor families to study," said headmaster Abu Tahir Md Mustafa.
Within a year after the scheme was launched on 1 October, 2013, the Madrasah saw a surprising increase in the number of girls attending higher classes. Dropouts among girl students fell from 100 to 30 and the number of child marriages went down from 30 a year to seven.
Kanyashree, the West Bengal government’s initiative to financially assist and help educate and empower women, has bagged the National e-governance Award, for outstanding performance in citizen-centric service and the Manthan Award in the Women and Empowerment category.
Girls aged 13-18 are entitled to an annual scholarship ₹ 500 and those older can get a one-time grant of ₹ 25,000 provided that she pursues higher studies, takes up vocational training or starts a small business for her livelihood instead of getting married.
With over 2.4 million girls between 13 and 25 availing of the scholarship, the project is a model for the centre’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Educate the girl child, save the girl child) initiative. The Kanyashree budget is ₹ 1,000 crore, as against ₹100 crore allotted for its federal counterpart.
“One of the key reasons for Kanyashree bagging the awards is that it is totally digitally managed from day one and, consequently, transparent," said an official of National Informatics Centre who declined to be named. The NIC has developed the software for free; there was no pilot project or dry run.
“The project had gone live and online from day one and without digitisation, it wouldn’t have been possible to encompass 23 lakh beneficiaries," said joint secretary of social welfare department, Sharmistha Das, one of the key people behind the success of the project.
Any girl student wishing to join the scheme has to fill up a government form manually and get it certified by the head of the institution that she satisfies the criteria that family income is within ₹ 1.20 lakh and that she is unmarried. The bank is now ready to open an account for the candidate. The institution uploads the data online, which will be accepted only if it carries a legitimate bank account number.
Existing infrastructure to pay salaries has come in handy for the Kanyashree project.
“There are 15,613 institutions which have started Kanyashree and 7,000 have e-connectivity. Schools and colleges in remote areas without e-connection can avail of the community centre services, which have been set up by the panchayat department for online data entry for its various schemes. Moreover, the social welfare department is paying ₹ 10 for each individual for data entry from private kiosks," said Das.
Girls get a gold-plated bangle as a token of appreciation for being educated and empowered under Kanyashree.
“The gold-plated bangle with the writing Kanyashree etched on it is a symbol of women’s liberation," said Das.