The Nitish Kumar Cabinet has approved two bills, the Bihar Engineering Universities Bill and Bihar Medical Education Bill, to increase the participation of girls in higher education. The government will seek the approval of lawmakers in the next state assembly session. Once these two proposals come into force as laws, Bihar will become the first state in the country where one-third of the total medical and engineering seats in colleges are reserved for girls.
Bihar, India’s third most populous state, has been facing a severe health crisis due to the spread of the coronavirus. A strict lockdown imposed by the Nitish Kumar government also exacerbated the already high youth unemployment. Opposition parties have criticised the state government for perceived failure to handle the COVID crisis and the employment rate. Amid these anti-government sentiments, the state government made a promise to reserve one-third of seats in the 38 engineering and 11 medical colleges it runs for girls.
"It will be a unique initiative. Engineering colleges are being opened in every district, and the government is also making efforts to open more medical colleges in the state. The whole idea is to ensure that Bihar students do not have to leave the state for technical education". state chief Nitish Kumar said in a review meeting.
Kumar, 70, who has been state chief since 2005, except for 2014-15, has introduced a series of changes during his tenure to empower girls. Many female activists have hailed Kumar's decision and called it a historic step.
When Nitish Kumar was elected as the state chief in 2005, girls' literacy was only 33.12 percent.
"At that time, the girls’ drop-out rate after primary school in some districts was as high as 60 percent. Building a school would have taken years. Hence, we launched a scheme where we provided bicycles for girls, and then school uniform", Rahul Kumar, a senior member of Bihar's governing Janata Dal (U) party, told Sputnik.
In 2006, the Kumar government reserved 50 percent of seats for girls in primary schools and 35 percent in secondary schools in villages. The Nitish Kumar government also announced a scholarship of $342.5 (INR 25,000) for each girl after they complete elementary education (Class XII).
The state also committed to reserving 50 percent of jobs for women in the state's rural governance bodies to encourage them to join politics. In 2016, the state reserved 35 percent of jobs for women in the police and 33 percent in other government jobs. In February 2021, the state launched a scheme, under which the state government will be giving a cash incentive of $685 (INR 50,000) to girls after they receive a bachelor's degree.
According to the 2011 census, the state's female literacy rate surged from 37 percent in 2001 to 50 percent a decade later, following the government's intervention. However, it is still below the national average of 68.4 percent.
"Despite the fact that so much has been said and done about empowerment, the concept of women going to work is still not there in Bihar. But when the state provides them a 50 percent reservation in local bodies, they are breaking the patriarchy. In some villages, people have never heard of or seen women leading the society", Soni Rani, a government school teacher from Bihar's capital Patna, said, while terming the initiatives as "social security for women".
Bihar is a poor state where most people eke out a living in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Half of the state's population earns less than $2 a day.
Ranjana Kumari, a women's rights activist, said that reserving seats for girls in technical and medical education will revolutionise society.
“So far, parents were only allowing their daughters to complete elementary education or higher education in the non-technical subject due to competition, but now as the government reserves seats for girls, one can expect more women engineers or doctors in the state".
According to government data, girls occupy 30 percent of the total seats in medical colleges across the state and only about 15 percent in engineering colleges.
Soni Rani believes that this step will also help the economically deprived class of society.
"People in rural India take out loans for boys' education. But it never happens for the girl. It's only marriage when the girl's family takes a loan for them to pay dowry to the boy's family. Reserving seats in technical education may encourage people to take education loans for girls".
Bihar has the worst female labour force participation rates among all states, 4.1 percent, against the national average of 23.3 percent, according to the National Sample Survey 2017.
Besides an array of women-focused steps, the Nitish Kumar government’s decision to ban liquor sales in the state boosted the electoral chances of the governing party. In the 2020 state election, female turnout (59.7 percent) was greater than that of men (54.6 percent) - the third state poll in a row (since 2010).
According to Ranjana Kumari, "This is also one of the main reasons why the Nitish government is not facing any anti-incumbency from the people despite ruling continuously for 15 years in the state".
In the 2020 assembly elections, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) won 125 of the 243 seats, while the opposition alliance took 110.