As dawn broke over South Delhi's Sangam Vihar, one of Asia's largest unauthorised neighbourhoods, with a population of 2 million, Lata Kumari, 30, began her daily journey trudging through slushy lanes, her two sons on either side, holding her hands.
It was 6 am. Kumari, who works as household help, needs to be at a house in the upscale locality of Greater Kailash-II by 7 am each day. But before that, the woman who never studied at a school was rushing to drop her sons to a private school some 5 km away from their slum.
The Right to Education (RTE) Act that India enforced on April 1, 2010, requires all private schools to reserve 25% seats for students from economically weak and other disadvantaged sections. These students - children like Kumari's sons - study for free, and schools are compensated by the government. But Kumari was worried.
"We're still trying to see if my sons can adjust with other, well-off kids, and whether the school treats them the same way that it treats those who pay fees," Kumari said, waiting at the packed school-bus stand.
Three years after India made schooling a legal right for all children between 6 and 14, the country's challenge has shifted. Yes, the absence of enough neighbourhood schools - required under the RTE Act - continues to act as a deterrent to high retention rates, evident from the fact that despite near-universal primary school enrolment, only three in every four children complete Class 5. Many private schools are also not implementing the 25% reservation rule. India's schools: a status check
For the differently abled, Muslims and to a lesser extent scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes and girls, enrolment too remains a barrier. But the first students benefiting from the law, and their parents, are starting to ask tougher questions, demanding quality and equality in exchange for their time and effort in breaking with the past and believing in education as a route to empowerment.
It's a new challenge the government is now starting to recognise.
"Our focus now is on ensuring quality; that's our challenge," human resource development (HRD) minister MM Pallam Raju recently said, speaking with reporters.
A part of the quality challenge lies in ensuring that the RTE Act and its norms are implemented. The latest HRD ministry statistics show that 1.2 million teacher posts are vacant, and only 60% schools across the country have a teacher for every 30 students in primary classes, as mandated by the law.
There is no national data on the number of schools actually implementing the 25% quota rule, and anecdotal evidence suggests that students benefiting from the quota have had mixed experiences. Many private schools also continue to conduct admission tests and collect donations despite bans on both.
Once enrolled, staying in school is also a tough deal for many differently abled children and girls. Only 62% of schools have ramps and 65% of institutions have separate toilets for girls. The RTE Act required each school in India to have both by April 1, 2013.
Schools that continue to violate the law's norms can be derecognised, so governments across India are currently in a Catch-22 situation - do they act against non-compliant schools or ensure that the lakhs of students who go these institutions at least have a class to go to? But the infrastructure shortcomings may be clouding a deeper cause for concern.
In March 2011, Mumbai taxi driver Dharmendar Rajput pulled his daughter Rashmi out of the government school she studied in and admitted her to a private school in suburban Borivli. Teacher attendance was poor in the government school and Rajput hoped the move would help improve his daughter's academic performance.
He was wrong. Two years later, Rashmi, now in Class 5, can barely add double-digit numbers and can't handle double-digit subtraction.
"I just don't know what to do about her," Rajput says.
Nationally, 46.5% of Class 5 children were unable to solve simple, Class 3-level maths problems in 2012, up dramatically from the 29.1% in 2010, according to the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) brought out by non-profit organisation Pratham. And 75% of Class 5 students couldn't solve division problems, up from 64% in 2010.
The number of students unable to read texts appropriate for their class has also risen. In 2012, 53.2% Class 5 students couldn't read a Class 2 text, up from 46.3% in 2010. These numbers indict public schools - and also the private schools where 30% of India's children currently study, and where 50% are expected to shift by 2020.
"Right now, the RTE Act doesn't even mention learning outcomes," Ashish Dhawan, CEO of education non-profit organisation Central Square Foundation, said at a meet on RTE in Delhi on March 28. "We need to measure how we're doing, check whether we're actually educating our children."
Millions like Kumari, the uneducated Delhi mother, and Rajput, the Mumbai taxi driver, have placed trust in the RTE Act, and in India's promise to ensure that their children receive schooling of the same quality as other, better-off Indians. Delivering on their trust is India's challenge.