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Government retreats on schooling for all

India. The huge increase in India's education budget this year was intended to provide free midday meals for primary school children and eight years' schooling for all. But the United Front government, which came to power in May, appears to be failing on both counts.

Human Resources minister S R Bommai promised in August that a Bill would be introduced in the current parliamentary session making the first eight years of schooling, which is free in India, a fundamental right.

But both the costs and the fears of legal petitions have resulted in the government backtracking. Education officials say it may be years before a Bill can be put to parliament, and acknowledge the government must first tackle the economic and social factors which force parents to keep their children out of schools.

Only 60 per cent of children complete the first five years of education; the rest join their parents in the labour force. Many girls are never sent to school at all.

Most of the increase in education spending this year was earmarked by the previous Congress government for a free midday meal scheme in the country's half a million government-aided primary schools. But this left almost nothing to build and equip village schools.

Some educationists say the free-meal programme, the real aim of which is to garner political support for the party in power, diverts funds from schemes which would have a more lasting impact on education, and makes it more difficult to ensure primary education becomes a fundamental right.

The scheme, launched a year ago, has already run into problems. The Human Resources ministry admitted in August that almost a quarter of the more than 700,000 tonnes of wheat and rice allocated to the scheme had not been used by state governments. It cited transport costs, supply problems and poor quality of grains as the reasons.

Some schools have been criticised for simply giving the grain to children to take home, but this could be the result of the way the scheme is funded.

The grain is provided by central government from its surplus stocks, but the money to build school kitchens and pay cooks comes from its anti-poverty schemes. These must often be approved by elected village and town councils - a sometimes slow process.

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