January 26, 2015

Why Bengal was kept out of the Republic Day parade

All day several friends have called to ask why the West Bengal tableau was missing from the Republic Day parade in Delhi. The absence has particularly disappointed and hurt a lot of us because West Bengal had won the award for the best tableau in 2014.

There is a back-story to the missing tableau. Kanyashree is the flagship programme for the girl child in our state, and with good reason. Some 17.5 million people in West Bengal are adolescents aged between 10 and 19. Forty-eight per cent of these are girls. Many are poorly educated and in rural, poverty-stricken families seen as an economic burden and an extra mouth to feed. As a consequence, they are married off early, leading to teenage pregnancy and motherhood, and giving rise to a subsequent generation – the children of these adolescent mothers – who perpetuate the cycle of socio-economic challenges, including infant mortality and maternal ill-health.

Under Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress government has been determined to rectify this. That is why we launched the Kanyashree scheme to support and incentivise girls’ education and the postponement of marriage and thereby pregnancy. We also sought to empower girls, who could get educated up to an advanced level and then become economic contributors and earners.

Kanyashree not only supports families with girl children, it actually pushes them into educating their daughters and keeping them in school, without forcing them to drop out. For each year a girl spends in school her family is given Rs. 500. If a girl is still studying at the age of 18, whether in high school or college, her family is given Rs. 25,000, transferred straight to a bank account. This money can be used for higher education or can help at the time of the girl’s wedding, since weddings can be expensive in our society and can inconvenience ordinary parents. (It doesn’t give me much happiness making that last point, but it is a reality).

Kanyashree has progressed extremely well since its inauguration in October 2013. So far 900,000 girls have started receiving benefits and in 2015 another 700,000 girls are expected to be added. The programme has been appreciated by national and international agencies as a model for developing societies. UNICEF partners the West Bengal government in the roll-out of Kanyashree and the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development has acknowledged the programme’s achievements.

We had planned to make Kanyashree and the girl child the theme of the West Bengal tableau at the Republic Day. It would have fitted well with the overall national message of encouraging and empowering women. The proposal was sent to the relevant Ministries and Departments in Delhi but was rejected. Many submissions were made, formal and informal, but it was to no avail.

Finally, we were resigned to missing out. It hurt and still hurts, but life has to go on. Only, I am left with a niggling question: were some people worried the focus on Kanyashree would have overshadowed another girl child related programme launched a few days ago… Never mind. There’s always next year.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress