More PR, less change: The impact of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme in one Rajasthan district

Since it was launched, the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme has spent 56 percent of its funds on media activities. Priyanka Parashar/Mint/Getty Images
29 April, 2019

On the morning of 22 January 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood on a stage in Panipat, Haryana, and urged the audience to treat their sons and daughters equally. “I have come to you today with a pain in my heart,” he said. “The world that speaks of humanity, in the same world, a girl child is killed in the mother’s womb.” Modi was launching the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme, which is meant to address the decline in the child sex ratioand related issues of empowerment of women. The BBBP scheme, like the Modi administration’s other flagship initiatives such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Make in India, has also been widely publicised.

Virendra Kumar, the minister of state in the ministry of women and child development, or MoWCD, disclosed data regarding funds released under the BBBP scheme, in a reply to a question raised in the Lok Sabha on 4 January this year. The reply revealed that as of 31 December 2018, the government had allocated funds amounting to Rs 648 crore for the scheme since it was launched. Of this, the reply showed, a sum of 364 crore—or atleast 56 percent—was spent on “media activities. ”The ministry’s reply shows that a majority of the BBBP scheme’s resources were focused on building a perception of change rather than initiating measures for actual change on the ground.

On 24 January 2019, to mark the National Girl Child Day, the Bharatiya Janata Party government awarded several states and districts that showed “exemplary performance” under the BBBP scheme. In the award ceremony held in Delhi, the Hanumangarh district of northern Rajasthan was one of seven districts felicitated for “enabling girl child education.” In February this year, I traveled to Hanumangarh to assess the implementation of the BBBP scheme in the district. Given the vast focus areas of this scheme, I limited myself to assessing how the Hanumangarh district has fared in the area for which it was awarded—the education of girls. I visited six schools to see if the scheme had yielded any tangible results. The perception of change was dominant, but upon investigation, it did not stand scrutiny—little progress had been made on actual metrics such as teacher training, the access to clean toilets and the ease of transportation to school.

According to the BBBP guidelines, in its first phase, from 2014 to 2015, the scheme identified 100 districts, on the basis of low child sex ratio, for “focused intervention and multi-sectoral action.” In the second phase, from 2015 to 2016, the ministry included an additional 61 districts—one of which was Hanumangarh—for “creating awareness and advocacy about the issue.” In March 2018, the scheme was expanded to cover all 640 districts in the country.

Driving down the lanes of Hanumangarh city, the old gives way to the new as small medieval forts mark the route to what is known as the Hanumangarh junction, where shops and modern-looking houses spot the sides of the road. Many locals said with a sense of confidence that Hanumangarh is relatively more progressive and modern than other districts of Rajasthan, which they believed had contributed to the BBBP scheme’s high performance in the district. Residents said that the scheme had helped at the ground level by encouraging people to give birth to the girl child and to educate her. “Now people beat thalis”—as a form of celebration—“when a girl is born,” Tara Devi, a teacher at the Seth Radhakishan Bihani Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Hanumangarh town, said. “This never used to happen till some years ago.”

Across the six schools I visited in the Hanumangarh town, junction and nearby villages, and from the district officials I spoke to, I received enthusiastic responses as to whether the BBBP scheme had led to real change. When asked for the specifics, however, the voices faded down and they seemed either unsure or unaware.

A proud group of government officials from various departments sat in the office of Zakir Hussain, the district magistrate, telling me how successfully the BBBP scheme is being implemented in the district. But they were unable to state what the district administration had done differently that made them win the award. The responses ranged from “organising competitions” and a “bike rally” to “cake cutting ceremonies” and “certificate distributions to high-scorers.” Some spoke about having the logo of the scheme on cakes, wedding invitation cards and other public posters. “The scheme has been going on well,” Hussain, the newly-appointed district magistrate of Hanumangarh, said. “The child sex ratio has also improved. We will work towards creating a more enabling and positive environment for the girl child.”

The central government funds the entire BBBP scheme. At the district magistrate’s office, public officials showed me documents disclosing the funding that the district had received for the scheme. In 2016–17, the centre issued a sum of Rs 16.25 lakh, of which only around Rs 2 lakh was spent. The next financial year, the district received Rs 17.25 lakh, and spent Rs 10.55 lakh—most of which was used for “outreach activities.” At the end of 2018, the total unspent amount was Rs 20,87,500.

In November 2018, the deputy director of the MoWCD wrote a letter to the ministry’s chief controller of accounts conveying that the government had sanctioned an additional Rs 4,12,500 to the district for the scheme, as the first installment for the year 2018–2019. The letter also “revalidated” the unspent amount—Rs 20,87,500—to be used in 2018–19.

When I asked the district government officials why the funds had not been utilised, most of them looked at each other confused. “It was our first experience with the scheme,” Shakuntala Choudhary, the district-level officer responsible for the implementation of the scheme in Hanumangarh, said. “I actually raised this point in a meeting in Jaipur. I asked them to provide us with a smaller amount that we can put to good use.”

The booklet prepared by the district administration to apply for the award is replete with photographs of sports tournaments, blanket and toy distributions, plantation drives and the felicitation of high-scoring girl students by making them wear a turban and taking them around the town on a horse. The booklet also highlights that the enrollment of girls in school has increased from 56,038 in 2016–17 to 95,469 in 2018–19. However, the district’s education department does not have any data on the number of girls who may have dropped out because it has not undertaken any survey to assess this. Historically, India has seen high rates of girls dropping out of schoolsfor a variety of reasons—lack of senior-secondary schools near their residence, the unwillingness of parents to invest in their education, lack of proper toilet facilities, early marriage, household chores and sibling care. In such a situation, keeping track of the dropouts can help in the better implementation and assessment of the BBBP scheme.

While the dropouts data of Hanumangarh is not available with the administration, the statistics for the state of Rajasthan have been collated by the Delhi-based ASER Centre—an autonomous survey and research organisation that is affiliated to Pratham, a non-profit working in the education sector. According to the ASER Center’s 2018 Annual Status of Education Report, 5 to 10 percent of girls between the ages 11 to 14 in Rajasthan were not enrolled in any school. In 2006, the figure stood at 20 percent. In addition, 20.1 percent of girls between the ages 15 and 16 are not enrolled in school, down from 37.7 percent in 2006. Moreover, the 2011 Census put Rajasthan at the third lowest spot in terms of literacy, with 67.1 percent, and the lowest in terms of female literacy at 52.7 percent. Despite these figures, the MoWCD also felicitated Rajasthan earlier this year for its performance under the BBBP scheme.

According to a 2017 report in the news website Scroll, the number of dropouts increased in 2014, after theprevious state government, led by the BJP chief minister VasundharaRaje, merged 17,000 of the 80,000 government schools into other schools.The report notes that the decision was taken “ostensibly to increase efficiency and rationalise the utilisation of sources, especially teachers.” But as a result of the policy decision, many schools were either shut or merged due to low enrollment of students or the presence of bigger schools nearby.

“When schools are shut down or merged with schools which are at a distance, most of the students who drop out are girls because their parents are not willing to send them far because of safety concerns,” Ambarish Rai, the national convenor of the Right to Education forum,told me. “According to government data, six million children are still out of school and there is a huge dropout rate between elementary and secondary, so there was a need to open more schools. Instead, the previous Rajasthan government closed down schools to make space for the private sector to come in.”Rai said this was a violation of the legal rights of children under the Right to Education Act, which mandates that children should have schools in their neighbourhood.

The BBBP scheme was launched with a set of guidelines that defined targets, roles and responsibilities for the MoWCD, the ministry of health and family welfare and the ministry of human resource development at the national, state and district levels. These form the bedrock of the BBBP campaign.

In the guidelines provided under the scheme, a district magistrate or a collector is supposed to prepare a district action plan, or a DAP, in consultation with the state departments of women and child development, health and education. The DAP should include activities and targets that the district administration must achieve under the scheme within a set deadline. The guidelines also prescribe a district task force, headed by the district magistrate or collector, which is responsible for effective implementation, monitoring and supervision of the DAP, andholding monthly review meetings.

However, Choudhary admitted the Hanumangarh district task force does not hold regular meetings. “The meeting is usually held twice or thrice a year,” she said. “It has not happened for sometime because the department was caught up with the state assembly elections held last year. Usually, the collector calls a meeting of all departments every Monday and I inform him of any upcoming activities or projects in those meetings, only to take his approval.”

Under the BBBP scheme, the department of school education and literacy, or DSEL, which functions under the MoHRD, is responsible for conducting the “sensitisation of teachers” on the child sex ratio through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan—a government program aimed at universalising elementary education. A vast campaign such as the BBBP requires teachers to play an active role to ensure the enrollment of girls, create an enabling environment and educate them further about how to overcome gender disparities. Of the six schools that I visited in the Hanumangarh district, not a single one had a teacher who had been trained, especially under the BBBP scheme.

“Some teachers go for annual trainings but that is related to education overall in which there are sessions related to gender equality,” Seema Bhalla, principal of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Hanumangarh junction, said. “But as such no special training has taken place under the scheme.” She addedthat there is a mandatory training per year for elementary school teachers, and a training every two or three years for secondary school teachers based on the subjects they teach. When asked if teachers were sensitised on the child sex ratio during these trainings, as per the BBBP guidelines, she said she was unsure as the trainings happened based on the subjects taught.

Ranveer Singh Sharma, the additional district education officer in Hanumangarh, admitted the need for focused teacher training. “There are training sessions held for teachers and principals both,” he said. “In those sessions, one of the sub-topics is that of girl-child education. There are no special trainings for girl education or for Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. There should be.”

As for gender sensitisation programmes for students, there had been just one session in every school, during which a team of representatives came and showed a film largely centered around female foeticide. In most of the schools, the teachers had to remindthe students about the session when I asked them if they had received any training. “They did not interact much with the students,” Bhalla added. “After the film screening, there should have been a discussion and they should have encouraged students to ask questions.” Some principals added that there are self-defenceclasses for girl students.

Kulwant Singh, the principal of the co-educational Government Senior Secondary School in Hanumangarh junction, was more defensive in his responses. “Our teachers are enough to spread the message of equality,” he said. “There is a good rapport between the students and the teachers. We talk to students and educate them about this and also spread the message during parent-teacher meetings.”

Under the BBBP scheme, schools are also required to form School Management Committees—or SMCs—comprising of the school’s management, staff and local residents of the area. “We wanted to organise big sessions for the SMCs but something or the other kept coming up and we could not do it,” Choudhary admitted.

The DSEL is also responsible for creating “forums to encourage participation of girls” called the Balika Manch. None of the schools I visited had heard of it. “We know of the Meena Manch”—a program for girl students—“which has been there for many years for primary school students,” Manoj Kumari, a teacher at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in the Tibbi tehsil of Hanumangarh, said. “A group of girls are selected from every class and one of them is made the leader. The idea is that if any girl is facing any kind of problem, she can approach them.” She showed me books with Meena, a young girl, as the main character, designed to promote girl child education.

The KGBV schools are part of a central government scheme launched in 2004 to set up residential schools for girls fromScheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Below-Poverty-Line families, and for those who had either dropped out of school or never went to school. These schools form an important link for the girls who had been left behind as they hold special bridge courses to help them catch up. At the moment, Hanumangarh, a district over three times the state of Goa, has just one KGBV.

The access to toilets is another major factor that affects the future of education for girls. InAugust 2015,the Times of India reported that over 200 girls quit the government-run KGBV in the Seraikela-Kharswan district of Jharkhand due to insufficient toilets. The 2018 ASER report states that 66.4 percentof schools in India had “usable girls’ toilets.”

The BBBP guidelines require the DSEL to construct and ensure functional toilets for girls. Only three of the six schools I visited had toilets that were relatively clean and could be used. Most urinals did not have a flush system and had taps installed instead. Most of these schools also did not have enough toilets in proportion to the number of enrolled girlstudents. Two of these schools had an old wing, in which the toilets were either locked or completely unusable with faeces all around. In the new wings, five to six urinals were stacked together without any doors,so the girls had to lock the entire wing for privacy.

In at least two schools, the girls told me that the washrooms stink and are usually so dirty that they try not to use them while they are at school. “It’s only in the time of emergency that we use them, otherwise we wait till we reach home,” Garima Chaudhary, a class 11 student at the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Hanumangarh junction, said.

Krishna Shekhawat, a class 12 student at the Seth RadhakishanBihani Government Girls Senior Secondary School pointed to a girl who she said had not used the school toilet in two years. “We prefer drinking less water than coming and using these toilets,” Shekhawat said, while talking about the new wing. “The old wing of toilets was so bad that they had insects. There was always a danger of catching infections.”

Sharma, the additional district education officer, said, “We get a budget for toilets under the government education policy and other schemes”—from both the central and state governments—“to make toilets for girls and we ensure that they are kept in proper condition,” When I told him about the condition of toilets I had seen, he said his department would look into it.

Further, four of the six schools I visited did not have a sanitary pad dispensing machine installed. In the Seth Radhakishan Bihani Government Girls Senior Secondary School, Shekhawat took me to the washroom, holding her handkerchief to her nose, to show the dispensing machine. The machine required Rs 10 for each pad, more expensive than some of the branded options available in the market. The machine did not work even after money was fed into it. In another school, the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Hanumangarh junction, of the two dispensers installed, only one was in working condition. “We had not thought of the dispensing machines till now,” Choudhary said. “It’s only after we made the district action plan that we realised that we have missed this important thing.”

In 2015, Smriti Irani, who was the minister of human resource development at the time, tweeted that the government had achieved 100 percent access to separate toilets for boys and girls in all government schools across the country. A report by Fact Checker, a fact-checking initiative, later revealed the claim to be false.

According to Yamini Aiyar, the president of the Centre for Policy Research, a public-policy think-tank based in Delhi, the issue of dropouts and the condition of the school toilets cannot be easily conflated. “Of course, at the secondary school level, the issue of access to functional toilets becomes more critical,” Aiyar told me. “But that is just one part of the story. “Teenage girls have a different set of personal hygiene requirements and having access to clean and functional toilets is important but it is just one of the multiple criteria.I think there are many other elements in the entire schooling process of why girls drop out of schools. Having a toilet is necessary but may not be sufficient. High-quality classrooms and teaching is what keeps students in schools.”

Other key factors impacting girls’ education is the distance of schools from their residence and access to transport. Some of the girls I met in Hanumangarh said they were struggling to pursue an education because they were living away from their families in hostels, traveling from afar to reach schools or had to face harassment on their way to school. “There were a couple of harassment incidents with our girls outside the school while they were traveling home,” Bhalla, the principal of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Hanuman junction, said. “We took care of that by approaching the police.” She emphasised that the lack of transport facilities continues to be a big hurdle for girls. “Though most of the girls who reach the ninth standard are given bicycles under the government’s scheme, there are still many girls who come using public transport,” she said. “If our school is given a transport facility—that will help the girls a lot.”

Devi, the teacher at the Seth Radhakishan Bihani Government school in Hanumangarh town, had similar concerns. “While there are senior schools in almost every village now, most of them don’t have all the subjects,” she said. “So girls have to come here to study and transportation becomes a problem for them. Some girls who come from far travel by buses, but that arrangement has also been done by the villagers.” However, Sharma insisted that there is no transportation problem. He said that the girls get a daily allowance of Rs 20 for conveyance until the eighth standard and receive bicycles from the ninth onwards.

The BBBP guidelines further require the department of education and literacy to construct girls’ hostels for secondary and senior-secondary schools. Sharma said that he was not aware of any such requirement and that the district had not received any funds for specifically building hostels. He said that Hanumangarh district only has two girls’ hostels. When asked about the low number of hostels, he suggested that hostels were not needed in the town areas as there were schools at the village level. “Almost all panchayats now have senior secondary schools, both government and private,” he said. When I pointed out that many schools in the panchayats and villages do not have faculty for all the subjects, he agreed that it was a problem.

After school, the next challenge in girls’ education lies in ensuring their ability to attend college. There is no government all-girls college in Hanumangarh district. If their parents are not comfortable in sending them to a co-educational college, there are only two options left—to either move out of the district for higher studies or to enroll in private colleges that charge high fees. Suresh Bishnoi, the public-relations officer of the Hanumangarh district magistrate’s office, said that Hanumangarh is one of only two districts in Rajasthan without a government all-girls college.

In sum, there are loopholes and gaps in the implementation of the BBBP in Hanumangarh that have not yet been plugged. There is a general lack of innovation or willingness to go beyond what has already been done. It is also not clear how much the scheme itself has contributed to changing the mindset of people towards girls’ education. “Even though none of us have completed our education, we always, even before this scheme, were very certain that we will ensure our daughters complete their education,”Sumitra Devi, a labourer in Makkasar village told me. Other women in the village echoed the same sentiment.

I emailed questions to DSEL and the MoHRD but received no response. If Hanumangarh, the district that received an award for enabling education for girl children, is faulting at these many levels, it does not bode well for the scheme in other districts. A greater understanding of the issues—both small and large—faced by girls in pursuing their education can perhaps bridge the distance between perception and implementation.

“There has been a tendency of very ambitious targets and a lot of publicity surrounding all the flagship schemes of this government,” Aiyar, from the Centre for Policy Research, told me. “But a high level of publicity does not necessarily translate into high level of implementation at the ground level. I think the larger point to be considered is that if strengthening female participation in education and labour force is the object then can it be achieved just through schemes or a deeper set of engagements? A holistic approach needs to be taken for structural transformations which look at the entire continuum of education leading to employment.”

Not all district officials and principals agree that there is a necessity for change when it comes to girls’ education. “Ihave never come across any discrimination between boys and girls in this district,” Singh, the principal of the co-educational Government Senior Secondary School in Hanumangarh junction, said. When I asked him what he thought of the BBBP scheme, he repeated, “This is a far more modern and progressive district. People are forward thinking.”

A few metres away from his office I met Poonam Rajpurohit, a 14-year-old girl, who was a tall and soft-spoken student of the school. With large, kohl-lined eyes and hair pulled back into a long and tidy braid, Rajpurohit sat with her head bowed down. She said her father has been telling her to quit education. “My father keeps asking me to stop going to school,” she said.“So does my brother, even though he has completed his school education. They want me to get married soon. It’s only because of my mother that I am still coming to school. She wants me to continue my education and I also want the same.”