Fraud and corruption are seriously disrupting the Government's much-touted drive towards basic schooling for all of India's children.
A report by the office of the comptroller and auditor general reveals serious financial irregularities and misappropriation of funds, for the Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan ("All grow, all learn") universal schooling programme Of the 34 million six to 14-year-olds targeted by the pound;127 million programme 13.6 million are still out of school.
Auditors conducted checks on the programme in the states of Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
They found that funds worth Rs. 998m (pound;11.3m) had been diverted to activities or schemes beyond the "scope of the SSA". These included buying crockery, air conditioners, mobile phones and constructing toilets for non-existent schools.
The CAG also noticed big gaps between the planned and actual achievements in key areas such as provision of proper classrooms, textbook distribution, and number of teachers.
There remains a shortage of 46,622 upper primary schools across 19 states.
Rural schools were worst hit with 75,884 primaries still functioning with just one teacher. At least 6,647 schools in seven states have no teacher at all. The 1:40 teacher student ratio stipulated by the SSA guidelines has not been met in most states: it ranged from 1:60 to - in the state of Bihar - 1:130.
But the ministry of human resource development, which runs the four-year-old SSA scheme, rejected the CAG's findings. Mohamed Fatmi, minister of state for HRD, said: "Enrolment has gone up and the drop-out rate has declined substantially, even in states such as Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh."
He insisted that the ministry had proper financial monitoring and "funds are released only after a proper audit". "We do not allow diversion of funds," he said. The minster also claimed that, since a free mid-day meal scheme had been introduced in schools, many more children had been attending. However, most states are facing serious difficulties in running the scheme and many students are not eating the meal because of the poor quality of the food supplied. Mr Fatmi said efforts were being made to rectify this.
India's HRD ministers are well-practised in the art of denial.
In November 2003 the then HRD minister, Professor Murali Manohar Joshi, told The TES that in the previous two years the Government had cut the number of primary children not at school from 40 million to 20 million - out of 190 million six to 14-year-olds. He pledged then that the remaining 20 million would be in school by the end of that year.
Suchitra Behal and Brendan O'Malley