THE Indian government is to recruit one million teachers under a plan to introduce free education for every six to 14-year-old by 2010. Some campaigners believe this does not go far enough and that schooling should be free up to the age of 18.
The prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, will head a commission of ministers, representatives from voluntary organisations and educationists to oversee the implementation of the programme.
It has been estimated that 60 million six to 14-year-olds - 21 per cent of the age group - do not attend school. A disproportionate number of them are girls. As a first step, the government is to carry out a detailed survey of all houses and schools in each state to create a national database. Teacher recruitment has already begun.
Extra teachers will be needed to replace those who lost their lives in the Gujarat earthquake (see right).
The federal government will initially fund 85 per cent of the costs - 630 billion rupees (pound;9.3bn) a year - and individual states will pay the rest. Over time, the proportion of central funding will decrease.
The government hopes to ensure there is one teacher for every 40 students, at least two teachers per school, and a school within 1km of every home. Religious bodies and charities have been urged to complement the government's efforts.
Education ministry officials said they will also revive the failed "non-formal education scheme" and set up "Back toSchool Camps" to get drop-outs into mainstream schools.
Textbooks will be provided free of cost to girls and for students belonging to the tribal and "low-caste" families. An additional 1.5m rupees have been set aside to develop innovative programmes for girls.
This ambitious basic education plan is being introduced even though the Bill making universal elementary education a fundamental right has yet to be passed. Opponents have criticised the legislation for failing to ensure that education supplies cannot be siphoned off.
Meanwhile, campaigners have launched a four-stage 12,000km march through 20 Indian states to demand free, meaningful education up to the age of 18. The march is being organised by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, with the support of more than 1,000 non-governmental organisations, the All India Federation of Teachers' Organisations and the All India Primary Teachers' Organisation. More than one million people are expected to take part.
India has a record 120m children out of school, most schools do not have proper buildings, 40 per cent do not have blackboards and in one-third of schools there is only one teacher, who is not properly supported or supervised.
The Global Campaign for Education, set up by a coalition of aid charities and teachers' organisations, is organising a global action week from April 2-8, in support of the international target of primary education for all by 2015, agreed at the World Education Forum in Dakar last year. www.campaignforeducation.org