West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee Tuesday flagged off the "Kanyashree" scheme under which an annual scholarship of Rs.500 would be given to unmarried girls aged 13-18 and whose family's annual income is below Rs. 1.20 lakh.
The scheme was launched at the Netaji Indoor Stadium here in a glittering ceremony, and is aimed at helping the girl students, from class 8-12 to continue their studies. Flanked by her cabinet of ministers, Banerjee launched the much-advertised initiative with the press of a button, as actors and actresses of the regional film industry encouraged the thousands of school children to continue their education despite adversities.
"Girls are our pride...yes, you can do it...even if you don't have money, borrow and study. We must not neglect the girl child," she said. The restriction on the annual family income would not be applicable to those who are orphans or are physically challenged. Also, if a girl continues her studies up to the age of 18, a one-time grant of Rs.25,000 would be deposited in her bank account, provided she is unmarried. 10,000 girl students have been brought under its ambit.
The government hopes to expand the scheme rapidly in the coming months, and beneficiaries would be paid through direct bank transfers from the exchequer. "This scheme will be irrespective of caste and community. If she continues her education, or vocational training, or studies in open school, we will transfer Rs.25,000 as a one-time grant in her account," the chief minister said.
"The grant can be utilised for her higher studies or for her marriage," she added. Officials say the chief minister's involvement with the scheme is so high that she herself christened it, designed the logo, and coined the slogan "Study and Smile".
The government has issued advertisements in both the electronic and print media to give the scheme wide publicity. Banerjee recently released the video campaign starring leading Bengali film celebrities- Prosenjit, Srabanti, Payel Sarkar and Subhoshree.
The 45-second audio-visual is being beamed on television channels, while the chief minister has posted it on her Facebook page. "The scheme is expected to lower the dropout rate among girl students, and reduce child marriage.
Also, it will help the government track those girls who drop out despite being a beneficiary of the scheme, and find out whether they have got involved in any immoral activity," said an officer. As per initial estimates, the scheme would involve an annual expenditure of Rs.1,000 crore, which the government hopes to meet from the additional revenues it has generated by raising the Value Added Tax rate by one percent.