NEW DELHI // Heera Ballabh walks his youngest son, Pankaj, to school through two kilometres of narrow lanes. He hopes a good eduction will propel the boy out of the cramped lower-class neighbourhood they call home and into middle-class life.
But this aspiration hangs in the balance because legislation will force the privately run school Pankaj attends to close as it does not meet the requirements stipulated by the government.
For Pankaj and many others, the 2010 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which makes schooling a fundamental right for children between the ages of 6 and 14, may prove to be misleading.
According to the act, private establishments that do not meet the basic definition of a school must close by the end of next month.
Pankaj attends the Pioneer Public School. It is among 2,000 low-fee private schools in Delhi facing closure, threatening to displace more than 500,000 pupils, most of them in primary school.
Across India, about 300,000 schools, with an estimated 15 million pupils, may have to close, said Shantanu Gupta, the associate director of the School Choice Campaign with the Centre for Civil Society, a non-profit research and educational organisation.
While the act threatens to affect those most in need of education, some activists support the legislation because, they say, it will prevent children receiving below-par education.
The criteria for private schools to remain open include meeting a minimum requirement for the size of its premises, higher teacher salaries, and government certification.
Mr Ballabh would rather pay several hundred rupees a month out of his meagre salary as a private tutor to send his son to Pioneer than to a government school.
Although there are no tuition fees at state schools and textbooks and lunches are free, teachers are often absent and there can be up to 80 students per class, he said.
Studies published by the Centre for Civil Society showed that schools such as Pioneer perform better than government schools.
But Mr Gupta said these low-fee private schools do not earn enough to meet the minimum criteria set out by the government.
"The requirements should be performance-based instead of looking at how much land is available to build a school," he said.
He warned that the impending closures would necessitate pupils moving to cramped government schools, placing even more pressure on the state system.
While it was up to individual states to tweak the implementation of the laws, the central government will make sure the act is enforced.
One of the states that has managed to bridge the gap between the requirements of the act and the realities on the ground is Gujarat, said Mr Gupta, where the land requirement was done away with and schools are judged on pupils' performance.
In April last year, the supreme court struck down a petition by a group representing these schools to repeal the act.
The schools argued that they were providing cheaper and better education to those who cannot afford to send their children to more expensive private schools.
RC Jain, the chairman of the Delhi State Public Schools Management Association, was part of the appeals process, and has been arguing with the government that land scarcity, especially in densely populated areas, did not allow for schools to expand. Most schools in the low-income neighbourhoods are built on small plots of land.
Teacher salaries also are lower because they teach in low-income areas, where the parents cannot afford to pay high fees.
For example, Pankaj's tuition fees would be 10 times higher if he was enrolled in a properly certified private institution, said Mr Jain.
"We will not let these schools close, no matter what goes down," he said.
Schools that remain open after the March 31 deadline will have to pay a Rs100,000 fine, plus an additional Rs10,000 for every day they continue to operate.
Mr Jain plans to appeal to extend the deadline.
"If we were able to build the kind of schools the act outlines, they would not be located in these areas," he said.
"We provide what the government cannot provide in areas where there are not enough government schools."
But there are those who say such schools must be forced to close if the education system is to be improved in India.
"We have an act that clearly defines what a school is and that must be respected," said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer and an education activist who filed a public interest litigation in 2006 seeking the closure of unauthorised schools.
He said unaffiliated schools may not follow a syllabus prescribed by the government, and pupils who graduate from these schools might not be admitted to other schools or colleges that do not recognise the degrees.
"We admit our education system has been derailed but we are trying to fix it, and if you are unhappy with how government schools are run then pressure the government to make changes but don't put your children in substandard schools," he said.