The government has launched a scheme to provide 180,000 informal schools by 2002.
The measure is seen as a low-cost attempt to tackle India's dismal record in meeting its aim of providing primary education for all its 300 million children. The intention is to persuade states to turn these establishments into formal schools after at least two years.
Informal schools can be set up wherever some kind of shelter is available, be it a shady tree or a cow shed, at less than 10 per cent of the cost of setting up a formal school. They will follow the same curriculum as formal schools, but may adapt lessons to local needs.
The scheme, set in motion by last month's budget, will avoid the immediate need to construct thousands of new school buildings and upgrade existing ones - or to take an army of teachers on full pay.
Instead, elected village bodies, community groups, self-help groups and non-government organisations will be funded to set up the informal schools.
"The government will work as a facilitator and provide some funds. The village is expected to provide the shelter. We would also prefer to pick a teacher from within the community, even if he does not meet the qualifications required of teachers in formal schools," said PR Dasgupta, the education secretary who has just been transferred to the post of rural development secretary.
The government scheme will be modelled on a successful project in Madhya Pradesh, a state run by the government's main opponents, the Congress party.
"The village communities have eagerly come forward to adopt the scheme," said Digvijay Singh, Madhya Pradesh's chief minister. "Every child in my state has access to a school within one mile of his home."
Madhya Pradesh trained village teachers by using computers and satellite phones in local centres.
"We will need to train the teachers we pick up from the local communities for the informal schools and we want to use this form of distant education to train them," Dasgupta said.
Transforming informal schools into formal ones will pose serious financial and staffing problems.
It is expected that most community teachers will not have completed the 10 years of schooling required to gain matriculation. New recruits to formal schools are expected to be graduates with a diploma or degree in education.