Conditionally Yours: Cash Transfers and School Attendance in Bihar
Student attendance in government schools in Bihar has been low for some time. The Government of Bihar (GoB), with a view to boost attendance in its schools, decided that only those students who have at least 75% attendance in the period of April to September, would be eligible for various entitlements, such as money for uniforms, cycles and scholarship. The academic year 2012-13 was the first year in which this policy was introduced. A couple of our blog-posts last year had looked at the implementation of this policy at the school-level (see here and here). In a nutshell, there was much confusion on the ground about eligibility and distribution, with massive protests from parents and students. Overall, however, most teachers and administrators at the time claimed that such a condition on entitlements was necessary to get children to stay in school.
GoB decided to continue with this policy for academic year 2013-14 as well. All government schools were supposed to distribute cash to eligible students on the designated day, during December 16 to December 31, 2013, as decided by the District and/or Block officials. We conducted some preliminary field-work in Nalanda and Purnea to understand implementation at the school-level, given what we had seen last year. This blog post presents some of these initial findings.
Campaign Planning and Organisation
The biggest challenge faced last year was that schools did not have enough time to prepare the new beneficiary lists, communicate the new eligibility norms to parents, and hold distribution camps systematically.
In light of these problems, in 2013-14, Government Orders were issued by the State at the beginning of September 2013 to inform district and block administrations about the campaign to be held in December, as well as the preparation required for it. SSA devised specific formats in which beneficiary lists and demand for funds were to be submitted by schools to the block officials. These were given to headmasters by September, and were submitted at the block-level by early October in most cases. By November, several districts had prepared panchayat- or cluster-wise schedules for holding distribution camps. General information as well as campaign dates were published in newspapers across the state. Teachers and headmasters had also been instructed to give periodic information about norms to students and their parents.
In 2012-13, there was huge rush to distribute funds in a campaign mode, and district administrations and schools had little time to prepare adequately.
This year, as with beneficiary lists, the demand for funds was submitted in the formats provided by SSA, and only the amount demanded was transferred to school bank accounts. This was crucial since last year lump-sum amounts were sent to schools according to the number of students enrolled rather than for those eligible. In cases where more money than required was sent, getting it back became an issue. District and state officials revealed that even by December 2013, not all schools had submitted their UCs or returned the money in whole. Such a problem is not expected to arise this year.
Distribution during Camps
The actual distribution of funds during camps held at schools has been much more streamlined than in the previous year. Most schools have distributed funds class-wise and at specific times, either in separate classrooms or at separate distribution counters set up within the school premises. This minimised chaos on the day of the distribution.
The local police was observed to be doing the rounds to maintain peace during the campaign. Block and cluster officials also came to monitor how camps were being conducted each day; however, this varied from block-to-block. The frequency of visits by district officials was much lower, close to negligible, at the time of observation in late December.
So broadly, one does see an improvement in the overall planning and management of this massive exercise. But this year also threw up quite a few challenges.
Confusion over Scholarships Norms and Data Collection
This year, until mid-December, there was much confusion over eligibility for the scholarships given by Department of Welfare. Generally, the scholarships are given to the children belonging to SC, ST, BC-1 and BC-II households. This year, however, there was some talk that more students would get the scholarships. Only in mid-November did the Bihar Cabinet pass a resolution that “General” category girls would also get scholarships. Incorrect interpretations of the Cabinet’s decisions in early December led to further chaos, as schools and parents really did not have clarity on who was eligible and who was not. Moreover, rather than the Welfare Department collecting scholarship beneficiary lists, SSA was asked to do that. All scholarship data was supposed to be submitted to the State by December 7, admittedly unrealistically. Given such delays in planning, there were clear adverse consequences on the fund flows for scholarships.
Problems in Fund Flows
Many schools reported not receiving money in time. One major reason cited for this is the staff shortage at the bank level as well as liquidity crunch at rural branches, leading to delays in transfers to schools. Additionally, given the confusion in December over scholarship norms and eligibility as mentioned earlier, funds for scholarship from the Department of Welfare have yet to reach a majority of schools.
Problems in Distribution during Camps
In almost all schools we visited, parents were observed protesting that their child should also be given the benefits. They all had prior knowledge about the 75% minimum attendance requirement, but their main bone of contention was that their child’s attendance had not been taken properly during the year. Teachers responded to this by telling parents that they should come and monitor attendance more often.
As per norm, vouchers or receipts indicating purchase of uniforms must be shown in order to receive the funds. However, this verification was not done systematically in each school and was left to the headmasters’ discretion. Our surveyors also reported that funds were distributed to children who did not have the requisite attendance rates – either to placate community members or out of fear of repercussion from influential local leaders.
The distribution of remaining funds (i.e., scholarships) would not be done via camps, but would be distributed by teachers in the school as and when funds are received. It is not yet certain by when this distribution would be completed.
What is of most interest is that attendance registers on which this entire entitlement distribution is conducted, don’t receive much attention. District and State Officials categorically stated that there was no time to verify the registers or the beneficiary lists submitted amidst all the other tasks. Given the allegations of parents, complete lack of trust between parents and school officials, and increasing awareness levels among parents, it is imperative that the administration enforces better – and more regular – monitoring of attendance registers. Regular and open communication, through enforcing the mandatory weekly parent-teacher meetings and monthly SMC meetings, would go a long way in establishing this trust and creating confidence among parents to ensure their children come to school.
It has been less than 60% these past few years according to ASER.