Free Bicycles Help Wheel Students to School But What About Freedom of 'Action' and 'Thought'?

Schemes like Sabooj Sathi in West Bengal can only be a supplement to, not a substitute for, vital interventions required to address systemic deficits in the education system.

Several states in India have launched a scheme of free distribution of bicycles to sections of high-school students. Credit:

The market seems to have become a fetish in these times; not only does the economy but also the system of governance appears to be more and more market-based. This is also a time, intriguingly, when a new counter-politics of direct distribution and transfer of small amounts of cash or other resources and benefits to a large numbers of have-little people has emerged as a prominent trend in many countries in the global South. It is as though there is an expansion rather than reduction in social assistance programmes, often modest in amount but inclusive in nature.

There is, of course, an enduring anxiety among many about the so-called ‘populist’ intent of such policies, their alleged wastefulness, and their claimed propensity to produce a permanent clientele of charity, which is supposedly inactive and undeserving. In this article, we take a critical, albeit fleeting, glance at such a ‘social-policy phobia’ before we turn our focus to the bicycle distribution scheme to high school students of West Bengal, known as Sabooj Sathi.

First, those who are vociferous against ‘the rise and rise of social protection’ for the have-littles, often remain mute about the hidden welfare state for the have-enoughs. Indeed, social payments like old age pension, benefits under the rural job guarantee scheme MGNREGA, amounts spent per child on school meals and so on are tiny when compared with some of the hidden subsidies to the rich, such as exemptions on taxes.

Second, it is worth asking whether populism is an unqualified bad – an unscrupulous and calculated vote-maximising strategy on the part of the ruling powers that perversely induces dole dependence among the indigent population. Alternatively, it is arguable that like ‘good’ cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol, there are different hues of populism – populism that enhances social justice as opposed to the one that is socially retrogressive, iniquitous and even inefficient.

Third, it is important to look at the system of social benefits not just from the vantage point of populist leaders but, more importantly, through the prism of the supposed beneficiaries. Does social payment or social wage anchored in various schemes – that directly transfer benefits to them either in cash or kind – have any positive effects on their lives, that face precarity on a daily basis due to entrenched social inequalities?

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It is from this people’s – more aptly pupils’ – point of view that we take a peek into the recently introduced bicycle distribution scheme in West Bengal. We explore how students perceive and interpret this policy action, and whether such a step expands either symbolically and/or in practical terms, the horizon of their opportunities. After all, what can a basic bicycle do? The cash amount involved is ‘small’; and yet can it be effective and significant in terms of what the school going youth ‘can do and be’, and possibly become? Does it help cultivating a space of group solidarity? In short, does it enhance their ‘freedom of action’, and more crucially, their ‘freedom of thought’?

Several states in India have launched a scheme of free distribution of bicycles to sections of high-school students. The scheme, called Sabooj Sathi (literally meaning ‘the green companion’), that the government of West Bengal introduced in 2015 is universal and inclusive in its coverage, as it proclaims to distribute bicycles among all students of standard 9 till class 12, studying at government or government-aided secondary or higher secondary schools, irrespective of their caste, gender, or class backgrounds.

This thrust on ‘bicycle for all’ (i.e. for all high-school goers) adds a special credence to the goal of universal secondary schooling, suggesting a social commitment that places all high-school aspirants on a footing of equality. Consequently, not only the have-littles but also the have-enoughs seem to have an interest in participating as well as reflecting on the promises and perils of the scheme.

Of course, the bicycle promotion programme as a model of travel and transport is in itself a major energy-cum-environmental goal all over the world. But ‘wheeling’ for schooling has a particular significance when we look at the issue of physical availability or otherwise of the high school, within a reasonable distance. It is as though there is a kind of ‘geography of inequality’, as far as the proximity of high schools is concerned. For example, as per the 2011 Census data, of the 40,218 villages in West Bengal, secondary school facility (higher secondary school facility) within the village is available only in 23 (16)% of the cases. On the other side, to attend a secondary (higher secondary) school, students from 15 (29%)  villages are needed to travel a distance of five kilometres or more.

Against this backdrop, during the first and second phases of implementation of this scheme, 34,23,004 students received bicycles, with the gender ratio slightly favouring girls (51) over boys (49). This aggregate picture and the promising indication of greater school participation of young girls, of course, does not entirely reveal the gender gap in high school participation that exists between districts and between social groups in the state. In a number of districts, girl students receiving bicycles are fewer than their male peers. In particular, the transition of girl students from high school to higher secondary school seems to be a major trouble spot, as is evident in a significant fall in their enrolment ratio from 55% in grade nine to 48% in grade 12 in the state.

This social fault line reflects more acutely for Adivasi girls, as the proportion of Adivasi girl students having received bicycles under the scheme (as compared to Adivasi boys attending school) seems to be falling sharply from 52% in grade nine to 36% in grade 12. This, therefore, implies that what bicycles can do to facilitate the educational journey of the youth is to be juxtaposed against the systemic deficits in the school system itself. On a more positive and action-oriented note, it is arguable that addressing the core problems that beset the education system and easing access to school through various schemes, including bicycle distribution, are complementary imperatives.

This thrust on ‘bicycle for all’ adds a special credence to the goal of universal secondary schooling. Credit:

But what kind of freedom of action is rendered possible by a simple bicycle? Our conversation with a number of high school students in a few districts in West Bengal in this regard made us clearly realise what difference a bike can make to the everyday school life of a young and aspiring student and even to her/his prospect to continue schooling. A girl student studying in standard 10 in Birbhum said, in a poignant yet humorous tone, how her recently acquired bicycle had enhanced her ‘school life expectancy’. Her father is a carpenter; her mother works seasonally as an agricultural labourer. She is the youngest of the three siblings – two sisters and one brother. Her elder sister was forced to discontinue her studies when she was in standard 8, as her parents married her off. Reflecting on her elder sister’s halted journey to school, this girl said:

“She too wanted to study, but the high school was five kilometers away and it was difficult for her to commute to school every day. She asked my father to buy her a bicycle. But my father is a very poor man, and so he could manage to procure a loan from relatives and employers to buy only one bicycle for my brother…when there is only one bicycle it naturally goes to the son…I would have also discontinued studies. But thanks to Sabooj Sathi, I have got a bicycle…You know what happened after I had got the bicycle? [laugh]…Earlier, my brother did not allow me to touch his cycle, saying that ‘you will break it’. Now, when I got the bike, he wanted to have a test ride of the new bike. But I paid him back in his own coin. [laugh]. Now it’s my bike, and it is as though it has become a part of me. Besides going to school, I go to the market, to the fair, to hospital, and sometimes when there is not much work I just go out biking on the road.”

That the bicycle has a different – in some cases life-changing – meaning for young girls is echoed by their parents. This does not, however, detract from the importance it has for young and adolescent boys availing it under the scheme. A large number of boys attending public school in rural areas belong to the poorer economic strata. As the indigent father of one of the students stated:

“I am a daily wage-earner. Now the daily wage for a field labourer is Rs 160 per day. But work is available only seasonally. How can I buy a cycle for my son? He had been fretting for a bicycle so that he could attend his classes regularly…. I tried to arrange for some loan, but who would lend money to a pauper? The bicycle he has received from school [under the scheme] is a real gift. It is primarily being used by him to go to school, but it has also made our life much easier in many other ways: to go to the market to buy things, to go to the health centre, fetch water and so on.”

As the voices of the students and their parents suggest, a ‘small’ offering of a bicycle can be effective in expanding schooling opportunities, more so but not exclusively for the underprivileged sections of them. What is more, it may expand the horizon of possibilities for them, allowing them the freedom to think and re-think about their educational fortunes. We got a sense of such ‘freedom of thought’ when an adult woman in a group meeting both lamented about her lost opportunity but also hailed the programme enthusiastically,

“Had there been any such supportive scheme, I would also have attended high school. I had to stop going to school since it was at some distance away. …But it is a feast for the eyes to see the young girls today cycling to school in groups (kato sundar je lage).”

It would be simplistic to claim that bicycle distribution among high school students will solve all micro- and macro-level forces that impede school participation. And even this ‘small’ intervention is not free from some teething as well as recurring troubles. Almost all recipients complained they had to spend an extra Rs 100-400 to make the cycle fit for use. Some irregularities were also noted in the process of distribution. Furthermore, the workload of the already under-staffed high schools has increased manifold due to this new responsibility of programme implementation thrust upon them.

We now turn to the issue of universal coverage of this scheme. We wish to claim that one of the reasons this ‘small’ intervention is reasonably effective is because it is collective. This point is made eloquently by a head teacher:

“Universalisation has many benefits. First, it gives a sense of equality among the students. Of course, they come from different socio-economic backgrounds. But, school is the place which is meant for lessening the differences – education is intrinsically involved with the goal of equality. So, a public programme inside the school campus should not make any discrimination – be it caste or gender or economic criteria.  Second, any programme aimed to serve select population is bound to carry within it a congenital danger of failure – partial or even total. Such selections for providing assistance are generally made on the basis of certain capability deficiency – being poor, or women, or low caste. Now, the select groups, owing to paucity of information or fragility of voice, cannot make much difference to the actual delivery of the programme. They generally cannot make any noise or register protest. And, the section that can do something effective remains indifferent, since the programme does not serve their interest. What I am observing in the process of executing the bicycle scheme is amazing: even a small problem in the distribution does not go unnoticed. Immediately some parents would come and argue. What I mean to say is that universalisation of public programmes creates an automatic mechanism of community audit.  The Rs 10 extra you spend to make the scheme universal, saves Rs 15 on account of monitoring. Most importantly, it ensures delivery.”

Thus, by making the bicycle a companion for all high school goers, the scheme has created a potential for bringing them together, in creating a ‘relationship of equality and solidarity’. Yet, there are some general concerns about the proliferation of piecemeal populist measures introduced by political leaders of all hues. In the present context, it is important to reiterate that a bicycle can only be a supplement to, and not a substitute for, other essential educational interventions that are required to address systemic deficits that impede the transition of the rural youth, especially the marginalised among them, from elementary to secondary level, such as non-availability of science streams in many rural high schools, teacher inadequacy therein, their curriculum overload and excessive examination orientation, and so on. Also, sustained cooperation between various departments, for example in this case between the Department of School Education and the Department of Backward Classes Welfare put in charge of cycle distribution, is a pre-condition for a happy coupling between ‘wheeling’ and ‘schooling’. Otherwise, stand-alone schemes may end up creating a heap of ineffective policy debris.

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