In Tarakdaspur village, Nadia district of West Bengal, 17-year-old Mamuni Biswas has learnt to make compost from dung and dry leaves at the village ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) centre. “We know that this must be used on plants once they grow a little; we cannot use compost once the fruits appear,” she says. Her expertise has enabled her to grow a variety of flowers, besides brinjal, greens, and the medicinal plant Kalmegh. She sells her produce to make a neat ₹60-70 every week, which suffices for her bus trips, school stationery and personal expenses.

Piya Biswas grows greens, beans, snake gourd, night jasmine and the commercially potent aloe vera, selling them once a week at the village market to earn ₹30-60.

Both the girls are part of West Bengal’s Kanyashree Prakalpa scheme, which along with the Centre’s Sabla scheme has been making waves in the State. The integrated project combines financial assistance, health and education initiatives with vocational training for girls aged 11-18, for planting vegetables and fruit on plots attached to their homes.

Envisaged by the LANDESA Rural Development Institute — a non-profit working on land rights for the empowerment of women — and christened the Girls Project, it helps its young beneficiaries become independent and push back family attempts at early marriage.

The project is being handled by the ICDS centres in six districts, including Coochbehar, Purulia, Jalpaiguri, Nadia, Alipurduar, and Malda. Once a month the girls in the neighbourhood meet in groups of 10 or 20 and learn to grow fruit and vegetables organically. Knowledge on nutrition, land rights and gender parity is imparted through fun and games. The ICDS centres also provide the adolescents folic acid and iron tablets for their nutritional well-being, and arrange for medical check-ups and blood tests every quarter. Each girl is given a Kishori card, which records her health status.

Additionally, under the Kanyashree scheme each girl receives ₹750 a year until she turns 18, followed by a one-time lump sum payment of ₹25,000 when she crosses 18. The money earned individually by the girls and the financial help together act as a buffer against attempts to get them married in their childhood.

The integrated Sabla-plus-Kanyashree project is now in its third year, having enabled 9.5 lakh girls to save money independently through bank accounts for their future needs.

Some adolescents such as Parul Modak of Coochbehar have imbibed the strength to defy their parents and opt for college education instead of marriage. Several others who had dropped out of school due to family pressure are now returning to classes. In Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Alipurduar districts in north Bengal, girls like Molina Barman, Margina Khatun and Roshni Lama are learning to cultivate mushrooms using damp straw.

The project also touches on crucial issues such as reproductive and sexual health. Visits to the police station, bank, panchayat and land revenue offices provide them experience in recording complaints, opening accounts, checking and documenting land records and other documentation. “The idea is to impart functional literacy and life skills that make them strong for life,” says LANDESA West Bengal State Director Pinaki Halder.

The writer is a Kolkata-based journalist