The Rajkiya Madhyamik Vidhyalay in Gurgaon, Pataudi, set in three acres of land on a tributary road just off NH8 has a pleasant, shady entrance. The long low school building with colonial columned verandahs which are partially obscured by the lush vegetation has a welcoming air about it and rings with the happy sound of excited children, chattering, books perched on their knees as they squat on the ground on their haunches, bundled up in hats and shawls, too cold to actually sit down comfortably. This profusion of plant life in a rather dry part of the country is solely due to the efforts of drawing teacher Khazan Singh, who has taught at the school for the last 10 years. The trees - Neem, Arjun, Amaltas, and Ashok - lovingly planted when he first joined tower over the children, provide welcome shade in the gruelling summers.

The school is closed for winter vacation but you couldn't tell from the buzz generated by the huge number of students present. 'Extra coaching' is the laconic explanation of teacher Harpal Singh Yadav. Too many children, too little time in which to cover the course, too many extra duties for a government teacher who earns a mere 5300 rupees monthly. Polio drive, election duties, surveys, electricity shortage, the Midday Meal Scheme, lack of books are all taken by this village teacher in his stride.

As for the programme whose mission it is to help Yadav and millions of other teachers lift up the nation's abysmal literacy, he has some praise, but it is not unreserved. Sarva Shishka Abhiyan, he says, is theoretically an excellent programme, but you would never know that from the way it is implemented.

Big isn't beautiful

Despite being feted as a huge success, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the flagship programme of the government for the universalisation of primary education leaves much to be desired. It is well budgeted for - the 2006-2007 provision for it runs to Rs.11000 crores - and the money serves a variety of critical needs, such as the distribution of free textbooks, the provision of midday meals, grants for teachers' learning supplies, etc. Reading various reports, one is understandably impressed by the sheer size of the programme and its constituent schemes. But look a little deeper, at specific cases, and problems are immediately evident.

The numbers are certainly staggering. Of the 14,49,222 textbooks to be distributed free in Haryana, 13,63,668 had been handed over by the end of December. But some books are of poor quality, and most do not arrive by the time the school year begins in early-April, and in the interim, teachers simply continue teaching from the old textbooks.

Interaction with parents of the children revealed deep dissatisfaction about delays in the issue of books to their wards.

 •  SSA - New indicators needed

Teacher training, an important aspect of the SSA program that is carefully monitored and the results reported, presents the same mixed bag of impressive targets coupled with weak processes. In Haryana the in-service teacher training for 2005-6 was targeted to reach 67,402 teachers, and the actual number trained was 66,252. The target for 2006-2007 has been upped to 71,179. But these efforts don't reach the villages fully. The teachers at the school in Pataudi complained that although such programmes are organised, their benefit is minimal since 'good educationists' are invited to talk only at the Block level, making them inaccessible to these teachers in the villages. And seminars, while they are organised every so often, are of limited use. The last seminar, held quite recently, was on Environment Education, as the subject but it was neither interesting nor well prepared, say the teachers. Too many seminars, they feel, do not focus on training them to get their inputs across to the children.

Successful, but only on the 'books'

Under SSA, free textbooks costing up to of Rs.150 per child are to be provided to all girls, and SC/ST boys, at the Primary and Upper Primary levels. The actual cost of books is much lower than this; bills received from the Printing and Stationery Department show that the cost of one set of books for primary classes, class-wise, is as follows: Rs.25 in Class I, Rs.41 in Class II, Rs.55 in Class III, Rs.81 in Class IV, and Rs.97 in Class V, working out to an average cost of Rs.60 per book. The scrutiny of records further revealed that the PSD has some money (Rs.74 lakhs) left over from advances made in previous years; adjusting for this the actual claim from the Government of India should have been Rs.452 lakhs. But the State actually asked for Rs.1131 lakhs, using the higher permissible cost as the basis for its claim, and actually obtained this amount. This means that an excess claim of Rs. 6.8 crores has been made available to the State.

One disorganised aspect of the scheme is that textbooks are received in batches, so that the entire set of books cannot be handed over to all students at the start of the academic session. Interaction with parents of the children revealed deep dissatisfaction about delays in the issue of books to their wards. The method of distribution of text books is clearly mismanaged. In Nagina in Gurgaon District and Block-II in Ambala District, extra books were lying in stock even as some other areas did not receive their needed share, pointing to the fact that the requirement for books is not being worked out correctly before orders are placed with the Printing and Stationery Department.

There is also little uniformity in the administration of the scheme. During field visits in Gurgaon and Ambala districts it was noticed that different practices regarding supply of books were being followed. In some of the schools in Ambala district (Kakrola, Manesar, Gurgaon, GPS, Indra Colony, Gurgaon, GPS, Ullawas Sohana, GMS, Sonda Ambala-I, Government Sr. Secondary School, Jalbera, Ambala) free text books were being given to all the students and in other cases these are given to all girls and Scheduled Caste boys only. The Block Education Officer, Sohna, Gurgaon Distt., explained that under the Book Bank Scheme - a State government programme for economically weaker sections - free textbooks were being supplied to all categories of students, and were taken back after the completion of each academic year. This is either a strange explanation - the BEO may be unaware of the scheme he is implementing - or a scary one, since under this scheme, no new textbooks have been supplied since 1994!

Amidst all this, the actual outcomes, in terms of increased access to and quality of education, are still very poor, as is widely known. And the Finance Minister has announced a hike of 35 per cent for spending on education in the latest Union budget. But the problem is not a paucity of funds. Indeed, even the available funds are under-utilised by the states. What is needed is better administration, and more reliable and meaningful monitoring of the performance of various schemes.

Cooked records, missed meals

When the Mid-Day Meal Programme was introduced in Haryana in 1995, one and a half kg of food grains per child per month was provided by the government. There was a change in policy on August 15, 2004 when the State government decided to provide cooked meals instead of food grains in primary schools. Slight adjustments were made to the menu, with the addition of daliya, kichri, sweet rice, polau and bakli.

The administration of this too is haphazard; in 2005 a research team found a stockpile of food grains (enough to feed school children for up to a year) in Sohna, even as in Ambala no cooked meals were being served in a number of schools for months because of a lack of rations. Clearly, in the case of Gurgaon District, Pataudi and Sohna Block the issue of wheat grain and rice in addition to the cooked meals violated the state government's instructions, whereas in the case of Ambala district the non-provision of cooked meals to students indicates that the scheme was not implemented as per government guidelines. The instances varied only in how they violated the regulations!

Interactions with parents and teachers of the Districts of Gurgaon and Ambala provided conclusive proof that the midday meal is one of the biggest incentives for parents to send their children to school. Parents and teachers alike want cooked packed meals - as provided by the Delhi administration - to be introduced in Haryana as well.

A golden goose

SSA is a grand scheme awash with funds, but effective utilisation of those funds, in in-depth monitoring, are both largely absent. Ironically, the easy availability of the funds for a supposedly highly successful government scheme may perhaps be the drawback that prevents it from being as productive as it could otherwise be. Since it has gained the reputation of being something of a golden goose, suppliers and contractors, as well as administrators themselves, are only too willing to exploit the easy availability of funds. Whatever is asked for, is nearly always granted, but little attention is paid to the actual - and timely - delivery of things ordered, which then subsequently lies around rotting, whether excess food grains or extra textbooks. The children who supposedly stand to gain from the scheme meanwhile continue to sit in their broken-benched dusty classrooms, reading last year's books, with gnawing hunger pains while the rats nibble at the midday meal provisions in the godowns.

The solutions lie in greater local involvement, and the inclusion of Panchayat Raj Institutions and Village Education Committees in a meaningful way in the administration of SSA. The programme demands this, but this is not implemented adequately. In Haryana, the difference between the on-paper and on-the-ground versions of SSA's administration have thus far been too great. The result is that in many areas what is available is yet another grandiose, feel-good education scheme, one that is a long way yet from turning out well-fed, educated young people.