Sahila, 16, wakes up at 5 in the morning. Half of her family members are sleeping in their modest dwelling in Jalapur Khaslsa village. She sweeps the floor, plasters the walls with cow dung, and washes the utensils before helping her mother prepare breakfast. Amid this flurry of activity, she quickly puts on a pink salwar-kameez, packs her tiffin, and heads out. On her way, she meets her friend Rasheeda and the two walk towards the spot in the village where they wait for the arrival of a bus. Around 7:20am a yellow bus draws up and the two hop on. The bus is one among five that drop these girls to school and bring them back home. They are part of a program called Blossom Bus, run in the Mewat region of Haryana. Starting with 30 girls in 2010, the free bus service now caters to more than 300 girls who use these vehicles to reach their high schools located at a distance ranging between 2km and 10 km from their villages.
Every morning around 8, Sahila, Rasheeda, and other girls from different villages board the bus to reach the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Aharwan village in Palwal. The bus is an indispensable part of the girls’ lives said Sahila. “We wouldn’t be going to school if it wasn’t for this bus service. Our parents would have near sent us so far away as they fear for our safety. The bus service ensures safe transit and fewer worries for our parents. Earlier, girls used to face problems while commuting to school since the boys’ school lets out at the same time. The boys would harass us, whistle at us,” said Sahila. Rasheeda agreed it wasn’t safe for girls to walk back home. “Last winters, the bus didn’t come and I decided to walk back home. A boy from the neighboring school followed me on his motorcycle and pulled at my duppata. Since that day, either I skip school when the bus is not there or tag along with other girls,” she said.
Both Sahila and Rasheeda studied in a government primary school in Bhanguri of Hathin Tehsil in Palwal till class 5. Both said had the bus service not been there, it would have been curtains for their education.
“The village school was only till class 5. My mother had no plans of sending me to the higher secondary school, which is far off from the village. She was persuaded to change her mind after we informed her about the bus service to the girls’ school,” said Rasheeda.
EDUCATION GIRLS IS EMPOWERING GIRLS
Like other girls in the school, 15-year-old Saniya also wakes up at the crack of dawn. After finishing her daily chores, she helps her younger brothers get ready for school. Her brothers’ study in the boys’ senior secondary school, locate near her school. The school has a handful of girls too, but she still goes to a different school. “Boys can travel anywhere. Who will stop them? My parents did not send me to my brothers’ school since they will not allow me to study with boys,” she said. “Even I would never want to study with boys,” she adds as an afterthought. “Boy’s won’t get up to take a glass of water on their own. No restrictions are imposed on them. However, a girl is questioned even if she steps down from the terrace,” said Sanuya.
Her voice drowned in the sound of the school bell, which rang to announce the end of the lunch break, with teachers calling out to the students asking them to get back to classes. A mid a din of voices and hurried footsteps, the girls retreated back to the classroom in a matter of minutes. A slogan was written on the wall of class 9-A, ‘Padhu lidki, Roshni ghar ki’ (An educated girl lights up the whole house).
The bus service has changed the lives of many girls, some are whom are married. Bikal, 16, from Bichpuri village in Hathin, got married in 2008 at the age of 8, along with her sister to save wedding expenses. Unlike her sister, Bikal has refused to go to her in-law’s house until her education is complete.
“I don’t even remember when and how I got married. Every year, my sister celebrates her anniversary and tells me that I got married along with her. I will complete my education before the gohna (traditional wedding farewell) happens, provided the bus service continues,” she said.
Bikal said she was hopeful that she would complete her education. Like Bikal, 16-year-old Bokah is also married. Both come from Bichpuri. Imagining school life without the bus is difficult they said.
“I got married on February 20, 2014. I was visiting my aunt’s house when I was told that I would be getting married the next day. I was happy that I would get to wear a lehenga (traditional skirt) and agreed,” said Bokah.
The lehenga has stayed with Bokah but her priorities in life have changed. She now hopes to complete her education and apply for a job in the police force.
THE BUS SERVICE
Suraj, the Project Manager of Lotus Outreach International in India said, “The service was started for Meo girls only, but we could not refuse others and now it caters to girls from all communities. In 2009, a report of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights stated that there was only one Muslim girl in class 9 in many villages. This prompted me to investigate the reason behind such low literacy rates among Muslim girls. The most common reason that parents shared across villages was concern over the safety of the girls since there were no safe commuting options for them. Many girls told us that they wanted to study but their parents didn't allow them to continue their educations after primary classes due to safety concerns.”
Suraj said that Mewat was chosen to launch the service not just because of the higher concentration of Muslims in the population. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation data from 2015-16 shows that among all districts, the lowest enrolment rate was in Mewat district, which has a heavy concentration of Meos. Only 643 girls enrolled in class 11 and 828 in class 12.
“Of the 100 students enrolled in school in class 1, only 10% reach class 12. Mobility is a major hindrance as there is no public transport available in the villages of the Mewat region. Safety is the biggest concern among parents and students alike. This is where Blossom Bus service fills the vacuum. Many of the Blossom Bus girls are first in their village to reach class 12,” said Suraj.
Suraj argued that the Right to Education Act, which guarantees free and compulsory education to students of 6-14 years age, should be extended to cover students of all ages. “Many parents, who were earlier blamed for not allowing their girls to pursue higher secondary education, are now proud of their daughters. It is the responsibility of the government to bring every child under the RTE.”
The volunteers associated with the bus service also try to get dropouts back to school. Boken joined the Aharwan School in class 6 in 2013. Three years later, she was compelled to drop out of school due her ill health. “I used to constantly fall sick. I left school and stayed at home for two years. There was no one else to look after my mother either. I would not have resumed school, in all likelihood,” said Boken, a resident of Bichpuri village.
This year in July, Boken resumed classes. She credits the Blossom Bus for it. “My parents were hesitant about sending me back to school after a gap of a few years. However, the Blossom volunteers convinced my parents. They are no longer worried about the distance that I have to travel to go to school,” said Boken.
HIGHER SCHOOLS NEEDED
While many Blossom Bus riders said that they were keen on completing their education, they were not sure if that would be possible since the school they go to is only till class 10.
“We have requested that the education department extend the school till class 12. There is no other senior secondary girls’ school in the vicinity. Most importantly, parents want to educate their daughters, and this should be enough to convince the government,” said Satendra Pal Sheoran, who teaches Hundi in school.
School authorities said they have given several proposals to the education department to convert the school at Aharwan into a higher secondary institution. However, the request for an upgrade has been turned down repeatedly.
Baghel, Block Education Officer, Palwal, said that the school’s proposals were rejected on grounds of lack of feasibility.
“Availability of 1.5 acres is a must for setting up a higher secondary school. The high school cannot be converted into a higher secondary school since it doesn’t have the required land. It is located on a much smaller area. If the panchayat gives us the required land, we will happily convert it to 10+12. The school fulfils all other rules,” said Baghel.
BUS IS CRITICAL TO EDUCATION
Drawing and dispensing officer, Ratan, who holds temporary charge as the school headmaster, said that the school would shut down for all practical purposes if the bus services were to discontinue.
“The school functions because of the bus service. If you take away the bus service, the student numbers would come down to 50-60. Our daughters would stop coming to school,” said Ratan.
Over the years the Blossom Bus service has expanded its area of operation. These buses are also now being used to ferry women to colleges. Some of the girls, after completing education in Aharwan’s girls School managed to complete graduation. Eight or more are now pursuing postgraduate degrees.
Kumari, 23, is a first-generation college-goer. She is in the final year of her post-graduation in political science. She takes the Blossom Bus twice a day to reach her college in Palwal, which is 8km from her village, Bhanguri.
Sarita used to walk to school, but her commute to college has been made easy due to the bus. “The bus service has been like a savior for the girls like me. Our parents got the confidence to send us to college because of the Blossom Bus. Parents are assured about our safety,” said Sarita.
Belonging to the Scheduled Caste, Sarita is the only one in her community in the village who has reached post graduation. Encouraged by her example, other parents are also motivated to educate their girls. “Parents come to me to enquire about the service. They ask about the college and if the bus service will help the commute,” Sarita said.
Sarita’s father, Jeevan, admitted it is not safe for girls and there is still some social stigma attached to educating girls. “I am not sure if I would have educated my daughter had the bus service not been there. Upper-caste people spread rumors when girls from our community step out of their house. The best part about the bus service is that it picks up the girls from their doorstep and drops them back,” said Jeevan.
The safety of the girls is the primary concern of all those associated with the bus service. “When we had launched the service, we used to encounter men who would try to molest girls. Once, two men from Aharwan followed the bus on their motorcycles and passed obscene comments at the girls. The bus driver saw to it that the motorcycling men and their friends knew never to do that again”.
Thank you to all of the donors who have supported the Blossom Bus. Your impact is immense!