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Landmark Indian Education Law Comes Into Effect

In India, a landmark law which makes education a fundamental right for all children between six and 14, has come into effect. But many challenges lie ahead in ensuring access to education for all in a country with the world's largest number of young people.

As the groundbreaking Right to Education law came into effect Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a rare address to the nation to express his government's commitment to ensuring education for all children.

The prime minister, who came from a rural area and went on to do a doctorate in economics at Cambridge, recalled his own story to emphasize the importance of putting all children in school.

"I was born to a family of modest means. In my childhood I had to walk a long distance to go to school. I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am today because of education. I want every Indian child, girl and boy, to be so touched by the light of education," said Prime Minister Singh.

The Right to Education bill makes it legally enforceable to demand free and compulsory primary education for all those between six and 14.

Prime Minister Singh is promising enough funds to ensure access to schools for all children, irrespective of gender or social category. According to estimates the government will need $38 billion in the next five years to implement the act.

The number of children who are out of school in India is staggering, an estimated eight million of them. Many of them are girls, who often stay out of school to do household chores or look after siblings.

Child rights campaigners have hailed the act, but they also point out that many challenges lie ahead in turning the legal right into a reality.

One of the greatest challenges will be making enough trained teachers and facilities available in state-run schools, especially in rural areas. According to estimates, more than a million more new teachers will be needed.

Shireen Miller, director of advocacy and policy at Save the Children in New Delhi, cites the example of a village in Rajasthan state which she visited Wednesday to highlight the kind of problems that face many schools.

"There was a school building, but again there were not enough teachers," she recalled. "There was no teaching materials. The villagers complained that, even when the teachers were there, they were not actually teaching the children. They were listening to the radio. They were making the children work in the fields. So the critical issue will be training of teachers, the numbers of teachers."

India's literacy rate is 64 percent. But studies have shown that a number of those counted as literate can barely read or write. Economists say imparting quality education is critical for a country where one third of the billion-plus people are under 15 and where, despite a booming economy, many people are still poor.