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With a sweeping schools law, India secures its future

Stacking eggplant on a dirty piece of burlap that serves as his sales display, eight-year-old Arshad seems unaware that his country has launched one of the world's largest education programs. Like millions of other Indian children, the vegetable seller does not attend classes. A van stops at his slum every morning, taking students to a free government school. But Arshad spends his days at work in a fetid market instead.

As of Thursday, such truancy is illegal. That's when a sweeping new education law took effect in India, making school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of six and 14 and setting up a vast system for checking the quality of schools. Many questions remain about whether India can pull off such an elaborate scheme - cost, corruption, and the sheer scale of the endeavour all present challenges.

In a rare televised speech marking the introduction of the law, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh allowed himself a moment of proud nostalgia, reminiscing about his own humble childhood, when he walked long distances to school and studied under the dim light of a kerosene lamp.

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"I want every Indian child - girl and boy - to be so touched by the light of education," Mr. Singh said.

Many countries have enshrined the same goal in law, but experts say India is unusual because it has also set a wide variety of performance standards. The government has mandated one teacher for every 30 students, and is promising free textbooks, uniforms and transportation - it is even providing students' lunches. Teachers will face new scrutiny over punctuality and qualifications, and one million new ones will be trained over five years. The law even regulates school sanitation, right down to the toilets. The cost: an estimated at $35-billion (U.S.) over five years.

"It's so unique around the world to find a country with such ambition," said Urmila Sarkar, chief of education for Unicef India. "I've never seen anything like this, addressing not only access but also quality."

The law is a result of India's desire to catch up with other rising powers such as China and Brazil, which ranked far higher on the scope and quality of education in a recent study by Goldman Sachs.

"India has realized it can't be a superpower if half its children drop out before Grade 8, which is now the case," Ms. Sarkar said.

India claims it has narrowed the education gap with its competitors in recent years. Official statistics show a staggering improvement in the number of children who do not attend school, down from 25 million in 2003 to 8 million last year. But education experts are skeptical of those figures, saying they are based on enrolment numbers that often get inflated.

Assori Rangarajan, program manager for the India Literacy Project, a group based in Chennai that focuses on education in remote tribal areas, says his travels often reveal a disconnect between government records and reality. On a sunny day last month, he visited a school with 47 students enrolled - and zero in class. That empty school had enough students signed up to collect a teacher's salary from the government, he said, but with no teacher in attendance it was clear that somebody was pocketing the money.

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"The magnitude of the problem is greater than it seems," Mr. Rangarajan said.

Even if nobody is fudging the numbers, the current system only considers students "out of school" if they remain absent for 90 days, a loose definition that some experts hope will get tightened as state governments decide how to implement the new law.

Another part of the problem is that India has not ratified international treaties on child labour, said Sherin Khan, a regional expert with the International Labour Organization in New Delhi.

Without a minimum working age, she said, it's difficult to push children from poor families into attending classes.

"The government's goals are tremendous," Ms. Khan said. "But most, if not all, of the remaining children will be the tough cases, impoverished child labourers."

Depending on how rigorously it is implemented, the education law could help break down the divide between the upper and the lower classes in India. The country's private schools failed to block a provision that requires all elementary-level institutions to set aside 25 per cent of their seats for underprivileged children. Previously inaccessible to some castes and tribes, elite schools may soon become social experiments in mixing social groups.

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The landscape could also shift for aid groups engaged in educational outreach for impoverished children in India. After decades of providing classes for children who couldn't attend school, some observers say the non-government sector may shift from teaching students directly and start focusing on teacher training and other ways of improving the quality of education.

Still, most agree that writing the new law will prove easier than implementing it.

"Maybe a third of the battle has been won," said Shailendra Sharma, a program director for Pratham, the largest aid group working on educational issues for poor children. "But the rest we will fight out on the ground."

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