|The International Labour Organisation says there are 165 million child labourers in India [EPA]
Raziya Khatoum is wading through a mountain of syringes, human waste, discarded paper and plastic bags.
The eldest of six children, she has been earning a living for herself and her family, by working as a rag-picker in a garbage dump near her home.
Although she is 12 years old, Raziya has never seen the inside of a classroom, but dreams that she could one day go to school like other children.
"I'd like to study but since my family has no money, I can't afford to go to a school," she says.
She has no choice; as a rag-picker, she can earn up to $0.25 cents for selling salvageable material from the waste dumps to wholesale dealers in one of Delhi's busy markets.
Hundreds of children in Baleswa, a slum in north-east Delhi where Raziya lives, have to work to support their families.
This is the reality for millions of street children in India.
In 2008, the International Labour Organisation said there are nearly 165 million child labourers between the age of five and 14 in India.
It is unlikely that many of them will have the opportunity to attend school.
Fixing the system
|Children providing for their families resort to working rather than going to school [EPA]
Sixty-two years after India achieved independence, the country's education system appears to be in disarray.
Despite growing investment in the education sector, 40 per cent of India's population is still illiterate and only 15 per cent of currently enrolled students make it to high school.
With 400 million children, India has the largest child population in the world.
According to Child Rights and You (Cry) a not-for-profit corporation which advocates children's rights, including the right to education, "less than half of India's children between the age six and 14 go to school".
Of these, just over 30 per cent make it to grade eight.
A World Bank report said that fewer than 40 per cent of children in India even attend secondary schools.
With large families to support and poor economic backgrounds, children such as Raziya face the gloomy prospect that they may never be able to read or write.
"My family is much more important for me. I would have loved to go to school like other children but my parents depend on my work," Raziya tells Al Jazeera.
However, a landmark bill passed in India's parliament recently aims at tackling the growing problem of child illiteracy and afford all children in India the right to education.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill is designed to make education a fundamental right of every child in the six-to-14 age bracket.
In theory, the bill appears to be the solution the country needs, but it may prove difficult to implement.
India's notoriously slow bureaucracy along with a corrupt education system, means the benefits of policies rarely reach those who need it the most.
"The bill is not addressing the needs of poor children who will still continue to work to maintain their families," says Ashok Aggarwal, a lawyer who has petitioned against the bill at Delhi's high court.
"Although laws have banned child labour, the bill makes no reference to it," he added.
|Many children from the slums in Delhi are unable to attend school [Gagan Deep]
Al Jazeera payed a surprise visit to a local municipal school and was greeted by children running amok in classrooms with no one to supervise them.
Many children complained of waiting for hours to begin their lessons and that teachers were absent.
"We haven't had a teacher come in here since school began," says Ramesh, a fourth grade student.
Teacher absenteeism is high in Indian public schools and one study found that 25 per cent of public sector teachers never turn up for work.
K.K.Thakur, the headmaster of the school, howeverm dismissed such charges.
"This isn't true at all. The children here are very happy. They get free uniforms, timely meals and teachers regularly attend their classes," he says.
Many parents are not convinced and cite the poor quality of public education as a reason why 27 per cent of Indian children are now being privately educated.
Premium, yet pricey
India boasts some of the world's best private schools. From horse-riding to state-of-the-art computer lessons, private schools are becoming a favoured alternative for middle-class and upper middle-class parents wanting to give their children a premium education.
But this does come at a price though; the private education market in India is estimated to be worth $40 billion in 2008 and will increase to $68 billion by 2012.
Fees for popular private schools are high and the waiting lists are long. Many children from economically weak backgrounds cannot ever hope to attend one of these schools.
Al Jazeera visited one such school and discovered stark differences with public schools.
Rows of orderly children sat in spacious air-conditioned classrooms; teachers provided students with individual attention.
|The new bill hopes to make the education system more 'inclusionary' [GETTY]
But the Right to Education Bill has tried to include marginalised communities within the mainstream education system.
It has set a conditional clause for private schools built on government land to include a 25 per cent quota for underprevilaged children in their yearly enrolment.
School authorities are, however, reluctant to implement this.
"They come from a different socio -conomic milieu and it would be very difficult for them to fit in here," said Aditi Misra, the principal of a private school in Delhi.
"I think the whole process of education is not just academic …It's also a socialisation process. So if you have children coming from a totally different background, instead of helping them, there may be a backlash," she said.
Experts, however, believe such 'us-versus-them' attitudes stand in the way of the government's plans to develop a more inclusionary education system in India.
"These elite schools are afraid that their reputation may get eroded by getting poor children in the same classes as the richer ones. That's the reason why they're so apprehensive to implement this clause," says Aggarwal.
On a hot summer day in Bhaleswa, 16-year-old Kashmira has just finished washing the day's load of clothes.
The Right to Education Bill means very little to her.
"I really wanted to study but my parents never sent me [to school]. They told me I had to look after my little brothers and sisters. That's what keeps me going now," she says casually.
But when pressed on whether she would like to attend school, given a chance, she reveals her long-lost dream.
"I always wanted to become a doctor," she says.
"Is it still possible?"
Source: Al Jazeera