It is a sad commentary on the state of the nation that nearly 42,000 state-run schools still function without buildings of their own, while over one lakh schools have only one classroom. Basic amenities continue to be inadequate in most schools. Budgetary allocations for education as a whole, and elementary education specifically, have risen only incrementally over the decades. According to a survey by the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration, only 65.56 per cent of all classrooms are in good condition; the rest are in need of either major or minor repairs. In meeting needs such as drinking water, toilets, blackboards, and furniture, there are major inadequacies. The picture at the crucial entry-level is particularly bleak in the rural areas and the worst affected are the poor. Today there is a 2 per cent education cess on taxpayers: the accruals were Rs. 6,975 crore in 2005-06. Since its introduction, outlays for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the mid-day meal scheme have been augmented, according to a statement made in Parliament recently. Yet the overall scene in the 10.4 lakh schools remains as dismal as ever. It was in 1987 that the Government came up with Operation Blackboard, envisaging the provision of at least two classrooms and a verandah for every school. In 1994 it launched the District Primary Education Programme that aimed at providing more classrooms, and in 2001 came the SSA.

It is not too difficult to identify the causes for the lag: investment in school infrastructure has been low over the years, the monitoring has been poor, and there is corruption, though it may not be at as high a level as some critics of public spending would say. In data that appear to have a direct correlation with the level of school facilities, the retention rate at the primary level was only 58.11 per cent as of 2004-05, although in a few States such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh the figure is above 80 per cent. School infrastructure creation is a task that cannot wait. Schools need to operate from premises designed and purpose-built to suit children. The risks involved in operating from unsuitable premises have been evident from tragedies of the kind that was witnessed in 2004 at Kumbakonam, where 94 children were burnt to death. If the Government is committed seriously to the goal of universalisation of elementary education, it should turn its attention to the creation of adequate school infrastructure in a mission mode. Norms and guidelines need to be standardised, and a specific monitoring mechanism put in place to ensure compliance. If elementary education is indeed a fundamental right, it is contingent on the state to provide conditions that will enable every child to enjoy that right.