In the minds of many Indians, the word “Nalanda” typically conjures up the image of a grand centre of learning. It was the site of an ancient university for Buddhist monks, believed by historians to be the world’s first residential university. Today, tourists flock to see its ruins, in the Bihar district that bears the same name.

But this rich heritage belies the alarming state of even basic school education in the district. While Bihar has for many decades shown relatively poor indicators in education, in recent years, the problem was exacerbated by a direct benefit transfer, or DBT, scheme to transfer money for uniforms and textbooks to students of government schools, where earlier schools provided these to students.

The state launched the scheme in 2017, but withdrew it five years later, in October 2022. In a survey that the state government conducted in 2018, it found that only 18% of children had been able to buy textbooks with DBT money.

In the village of Murarpur in Nalanda district, a group of parents told Scroll in August that they were relieved that the scheme was withdrawn. “I have an Aadhaar and a bank account, but the money never came,” said Divya, a mother of three. In rural Patna, Usha Devi said, “Not once in the last five years did we get any money.”

In some instances, funds did not reach the bank accounts of the students or their parents even after they had supplied details of their Aadhaar-linked numbers and bank accounts to the schools. In other cases, the problem was even more basic – some parents explained that they did not have bank accounts to receive money in.

“Neither I nor my children have accounts,” said Renu Ravi, a mother of two, from Musahar, a village in rural Patna inhabited mostly by members of the Musahar Scheduled Caste community. “We are daily-wage labourers and don’t know how or where to buy books. It is better now that the schools are giving us the books directly.”

A government school classroom in Nalanda. The poor state of education in Bihar was exacerbated in recent years by the introduction of direct benefit transfers for textbooks and uniforms. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Bihar was among the first states to launch the DBT scheme for school textbooks and uniforms – it did so under the Samagra Shiksha, a national programme for school education. Since then, other states, including Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have also introduced the scheme. In Uttar Pradesh, reports noted that students shivered in the winter cold of 2022 because they had not received funds for their winter clothes.

“There is no doubt that the Central government has been promoting DBT across the board,” economist Jean Drèze said. “In some schemes, progress with transition to DBT is now treated as one of the main criteria of success.”

The Central government has argued that DBTs broadly ensure a faster flow of funds as well as “accurate targeting of the beneficiaries, de-duplication and reduction of fraud”.

Some experts have supported the idea of DBTs in education. Parth J Shah, an economist and one of the authors of a 2017 paper that argued in favour of them, said that such transfers could help override inefficiencies in the system. “So many students only get their textbooks and uniforms in the middle of the year because the school hasn’t distributed them on time,” he said. “Many students have to make do with poor quality textbooks and uniforms that the school provides, while the more well-to-do students have the option of buying better quality books and uniforms.” He added, “By giving money directly to the families, they have the ability to buy better quality products.”

In response to criticisms that many parents did not have bank accounts or Aadhaar cards, he argued that the government could transfer funds for textbooks and uniforms to schools and ask them to distribute the cash. “Instead of that, the states are shutting down the scheme entirely,” he said. In instances where money was not received, he noted that parents could file complaints on the scheme’s official website.

But many experts have pointed out that cash transfers must be used judiciously. Drèze explained that one of the reasons he held this view was that many children in government schools were “from very poor backgrounds, so often, their families have to choose between buying textbooks and purchasing basic food or household commodities”. He argued, “It is cruel to force them to choose.”

He added, “For some commodities, like fertilisers, it makes sense to give citizens the right to decide what kind of product they need. But you can’t apply the same logic to something like textbooks. There is no doubt that it is the school’s responsibility to provide them directly to the children.”

A village in Nalanda. The economist Jean Drèze argued that it was “cruel” to force poor families to choose “between buying textbooks and purchasing basic food or household commodities”. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Drèze was one of the guides of a 2023 study on the status of government-aided and government schools in Katihar and Araria districts of Bihar, whose findings echoed parents’ experiences. “In the absence of DBT money, students were still trying hard to get textbooks and uniforms,” the report stated. “We found that many children without textbooks were banking on private tuition to help them study. Some had borrowed from a senior or were sharing with their classmates.”

The report also found that DBT payments sometimes failed due to technical or procedural glitches. It noted, for instance, that beneficiaries were required to have a bank account linked to an Aadhaar number, but that there was instances of “discrepancies in a child’s name between the Aadhaar card and school register or Know Your Customer (KYC) problems at the bank”. It also noted that “demanding Aadhaar from school children is a violation of Supreme Court orders on Aadhaar”, referring to a 2018 ruling of the court. “The government cannot be demanding that students have Aadhaar when the Supreme Court has clearly stated that such a demand should not be placed,” Drèze said.

A principal of a government school in Nalanda, who asked to remain anonymous, said he and many from the teaching community in Bihar had welcomed the decision to withdraw the DBT scheme for textbooks. After the withdrawal, the principal said, they had noticed that most students have been able to access textbooks.

“This is a much more efficient method,” he said. “This way we will also notice which children don’t have books and we can figure out a way to get them the books.”

When money was transferred directly, he added, school authorities had no information about the process. “We weren’t sure whether they even got the money or not and could not help,” he said.

Parents in Murarpur said the situation remained fraught even after the scheme was withdrawn. Schools had only distributed textbooks in July and not in April as they should have done. Thus, students had spent the first few months of school without their textbooks, explained the parents, most of whom were members of the Scheduled Caste Ravidas community.

But even this, they said, was preferable to the situation under the DBT scheme. This was the first time in the last five years, they explained, that the students managed to get hold of books at all. “It is a relief that the school is giving the books directly to the children,” a parent from Nalanda said. “We don’t have to feel bad about not being able to buy it for them.”

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The Bihar government introduced the DBT scheme for uniforms and textbooks under the broad umbrella of the direct benefit transfers mission. Launched by the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre in 2013, the mission has been vastly expanded by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government since 2014. It is run by the Cabinet Secretariat, and provides funds to Central and state ministries and departments for a range of schemes and programmes that transfer money directly to beneficiaries.

Currently, there are 313 schemes under 53 ministries that participate in the DBT mission – these include schemes under the department of atomic energy, department of rural development and the ministry of environment, forest and climate change.

Under the Central department of school education and literacy, six schemes have been included in the DBT umbrella. These schemes include Samagra Shiksha, the Pradhan Mantri Poshan Yojana, which focuses on nutrition, and a scheme that provides a stipend for female students with disabilities.

The Bihar government applied for and was granted funds from the DBT mission under Samagra Shiksha – as per the terms of the scheme, the state was to provide 40% of the funds for the textbooks and uniforms, while the Centre would provide 60% of the funds.

At the start of each academic year, parents were required to give the school authorities the details of their bank accounts and Aadhaar cards. The principals were responsible for feeding these details into the government website that would enable direct transfers. Typically, for younger students, money was to be transferred to parents’ accounts, while older students, who had their own accounts, coulsd receive money directly.

But around 20 parents Scroll spoke to said though they gave these details to principals, they did not see a single rupee reach their accounts through the five years.

Since 2017, “At the beginning of every year, we visited the school and spoke to the principal. We gave all the details,” said Rupa Kumari, a parent in Murarpur. In fact, she alleged that the principal demanded money from parents to feed in these details. “They asked for Rs 1,000 and said money would be returned to our accounts so it’s okay,” she said. “But not once in the last five years did we get any money.”

A government school building in rural Patna. A 2023 study in Katihar and Araria found that many school students borrowed textbooks “from a senior or were sharing with their classmates”. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Some parents tried demanding answers from school authorities. “When we went to the schools, the teachers assured us that the money had come and asked us to check at the bank,” Poorna Devi, a mother of two in Murarpur said. “But when we went to the bank, they told us the money hadn’t come.”

In rural Patna, another parent, Shanti Devi, said that she had frequently argued with the principal at her daughter’s school. “The principal is always saying that I fight too much. But I am only demanding that my daughter get what she is entitled to,” she said.

Because of these problems, many children were unable to buy textbooks for the five years that the scheme was implemented, which included the years of the Covid-19 pandemic – activists said that this exacerbated the learning loss in the state.

When asked how their wards had managed without books, most parents said that they sent them for additional tuition classes. “We provide children with books,” said a tuition teacher in Murarpur, who trained as a teacher with a local NGO.

Some students who were economically better off shared textbooks with others. But this was only possible during class hours – outside the classroom, the other students had no access to the books.

In some instances, parents purchased books by cutting down on other basic expenditures. “What to do,” said Divya. “We can’t allow them to remain illiterate like us, so we somehow pool in money and buy them what they need.”

Even with the withdrawal of the DBT scheme, the process of ensuring that students have textbooks and uniforms is complicated by the fact that many parents are dissatisfied with government schools and so enrol their wards in private schools. “The parents admit their schools to private schools but still want to avail of the benefit of textbooks and uniforms,” the principal from Nalanda said, pointing to a stack of books in his office that had remained after the distribution was done.

In some such cases, students remain enrolled in two schools, he explained. “Parents usually enrol their children at private schools,” he said. “But choose to admit them again to government schools when they can no longer afford the fees.”

Anil Kumar Roy, the state convenor of the Right to Education Forum pointed out that in some instances, even when money was transferred to students or their parents, it would get deducted as soon as it arrived in the bank. This would happen because beneficiaries often didn’t have the required minimum balance in their accounts, for which banks penalised them.

Roy added that many parents are daily-wage earners and could not forgo a day’s pay by visiting banks when they had problems. “They are not informed about when they are supposed to expect the payment and have to just be on an endless wait,” he said. “We cannot expect them to skip work to go to the bank.”

Parents in Nalanda. In many cases, banks would deduct money transferred to accounts for uniforms and textbooks because a minimum balance was not maintained in them. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

A lack of information also proved to be a problem. Some parents Scroll spoke to said they had received some funds from the government, but had not clearly understood that it was for textbooks or uniforms for their children.

Some parents struggled to find time to purchase books, Roy noted. “Books are sold at the block research centres in every block on select days,” he said. “But parents are not informed properly of the sale. In case they are sold on working days, parents cannot take the day off to go and buy the books.”

Many noted that the amounts transferred for uniforms under the scheme were inadequate: Rs 600 annually for Classes 1 and 2, whereas the costs could go up to Rs 1,200 for two sets, excluding shoes and socks.

Meanwhile, those without bank accounts were completely excluded from the scheme. When asked how schools processed transfers for students without bank accounts, the Nalanda principal said that he simply did not admit them while the scheme was in place. “Even if they don’t have Aadhaar cards, we can manage,” he said. “But we need bank accounts to process DBT.”

Students were also excluded because of a rule that they had to have 75% attendance in order to avail of the scheme’s benefits. “We sometimes do increase the attendance of the students so they will be eligible, but cannot do that all the time,” a principal of a government school in Patna said. The 2023 study stated that this condition “is a violation of the RTE Act – school children have an unconditional right to textbooks.”

Some families did not receive money because they did not enrol for the scheme within a specific time period. In the first few weeks of each academic year, principals had to enter details of the students, such as their names, account numbers and Aadhaar information, into Medha SoFT, a government app, after which the transfers would be enabled.

“When students come for admission later in the year, their details cannot be fed in, so sometimes such students lose out on the funds,” a teacher said.

There were also instances in which students did not receive money because principals did not have the basic technological skills to enrol them in the scheme. “Most principals have no idea how to use a computer,” said a principal of over 30 years from a government school in Patna. Roy noted that schools in Patna were relatively better in this respect than those in other parts of the state. “If the condition here is so bad, we can only expect that it is several times worse in other parts of Bihar,” he said.

Parents noted that the amounts transferred for uniforms were inadequate. In some cases, students were excluded if they did not enrol on time, or did not have a minimum attendance. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

For now, the DBT scheme still applies to uniforms in the state. But families face the same problem of not receiving transfers, as a result of which, many children go to school in other clothes, or in old uniforms that are faded and torn.

This causes students considerable psychological stress, parents said, which can be exacerbated by teachers who target those without uniforms for punishment. “Because my child doesn’t have a uniform, the teacher makes her stand last in the line for the midday meal,” one parent in Nalanda, Mauji Ravidas, said. “The teacher says those without uniforms don’t deserve to eat first and only those with uniforms have the right to eat first.”

Divya, the mother of three, said that children were “scolded by the teachers every day for not being in the correct uniform”. She added, “They are made to feel bad about something they cannot help.”

On the day that Scroll visited Murarpur, one child confessed to not going to school that day because she had only one uniform, which was dirty.

In a government school in the town of Hilsa in Nalanda, at first glance it seemed that all the students were in uniform. But on a closer look in a classroom, some differences were apparent. Some children were wearing shirts and trousers of similar colour to the uniform. Some wore shirts that seemed to be at least a few years old, and were severely stained, and others wore torn uniforms. When asked who had uniforms that had been newly stitched that year, in a class of at least thirty students, only around four hands went up.

Similar problems with DBTs for school students have been observed in other states.

The 2023 research team also conducted a study on a “schooling crisis” in 16 districts of Jharkhand, whose government has implemented the DBT scheme for uniforms. One of the researchers, Paran Amitava, said that the team observed that a large number of children from Class 4 onwards would wear regular clothes or old uniforms instead of new ones. This, she explained, was indicative of the failure of the DBT scheme, which applied to students from Class 4 and above. “Until the third standard, the schools provide uniforms,” she said. “You can see the distinction clearly.” She also added that like in Bihar, the amount of funding is too low for two sets of uniforms and footwear.

In Uttar Pradesh, the DBT scheme was introduced in 2021 for uniforms – each student is paid Rs 1,100 per year for their uniform sets, which include winter wear. Local activists said that parents complained that this amount was not enough to purchase two sets of uniforms and footwear, as well as winter wear. According to a local journalist, the costs are usually between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,800.

Former chief minister and the leader of the opposition in the state’s assembly, Akhilesh Yadav, also criticised the government’s decision to provide only Rs 1,100 to students for uniforms.

“Can the minister tell the name of the shop where two sets of uniforms, a sweater, a pair of shoes, and a bag are available at Rs 1,100?” Yadav asked the government during the state assembly in May 2022.

Delays in transfers were also common, noted Alim Jafri, a journalist based in the state who has written on the problem extensively.

Parents in Bihar said that children suffered considerable psychological stress if they did not have new uniforms because some teachers would single them out for punishment. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

In Tamil Nadu, a DBT scheme was introduced for children living in remote areas across the state to avail of transport – either private transport, or public transport if they could reach places where it was available. The scheme fell flat. An official who works on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme said that the scheme had to be withdrawn because many tribal communities lived in very remote regions, which made it difficult to encourage them to open bank accounts. Instead, it was easier for the government to transfer the money to the schools, as it had always done, and give them the responsibility of organising transport. “Students were facing difficulties trying to find appropriate transport to get to school,” he said. “Also parents have to go to work early in the mornings and cannot ensure that their children get on the bus or auto and head to school.”

Meanwhile, in Bihar, an analysis of the money spent on uniforms for schools students in the states, found that expenditure “on uniforms for the elementary level under the state schemes has fallen in nominal terms. Compared to 2017-18, the recent figures are much lower. The reason for the decline in expenditure may have to do with the introduction of DBT and the resulting exclusion of students from this benefit.”

Quoting the Bihar government’s survey, the study noted, “The exclusions are significant, and even those who receive money may receive it late when it can no longer be used for the intended purpose. The present arrangement of DBT does not serve the interest of the child, whose right to education is the main objective here.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.