HUDDLED with 15 curious eight-year-olds on a sunny veranda, Ram Jitin Chaudhry held out two fistfuls of dirt. ``What grows in this sandy soil?'' he asked. ``Millet,'' answered a child. ``And this?'' Mr. Chaudhry prompted, his palm full of loam. ``Wheat,'' volunteered another.
Two years ago, Chaudhry, a native of this arid village, was a dropout, and children infrequently saw a teacher in their mud-walled school. Now he is a shiksha karmi or educational worker, replacing the often-absent assigned teacher, who lived several miles away, and bolstering his own interrupted education in the process.
``I want to appear in my secondary graduation,'' says the 27-year-old teaching assistant who left school after grade 10 to work in the fields. ``And I want to help this village.''
Well on its way to becoming the world's most illiterate nation, India is grasping for solutions to its education crisis. By the next century, this country will have more than 1 billion people, about 60 percent of them illiterate, projects India Today magazine.
Government officials insist that initiatives such as the shiksha karmi program in Rajasthan state are helping ease the crush of spreading illiteracy and stem the high dropout rates in rural India.
Five years ago, after succeeding his assassinated mother, Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched an education drive including upgraded and new primary schools, expanded so-called nonformal centers and a network of navodaya vidyalayas or new-look schools for talented rural children.
``We're going to crack it,'' insists Anil Bordia, education secretary. ``If we have universal primary education, we won't have an illiterate person up to 35 to 40 years of age by the turn of the century.''
Many educators discount such claims, however, and point out that the population explosion undercuts education gains. They contend that the primary education effort is poorly conceived and falling far short of Gandhi's goal of schooling for every Indian child by 1990.
Given the enormity of looming illiteracy, some experts suggest that the government should lower its goals to fifth-grade education instead of the current eighth-grade standard.
A recent government survey shows that almost half of smaller villages don't have schools. According to the 1981 census, about 50 percent of children drop out before the fifth grade, and some educators say it is worsening.
Prime Minister V..P. Singh, who came to power after defeating Gandhi in the national election in November, is expected to restructure programs. His government has criticized navodaya schools as elitist and too expensive.
Operation Blackboard, the program to provide two teachers, two rooms, blackboards, and other materials to every school, also has been disappointing. The initiative has reached less than one-third of the targeted schools because of a lack of funds and weak organization.
Like many developing countries, India spends a disproportionate amount of funding on colleges and universities. A new study, done for the World Bank by New Delhi economist Surjit Bhalla, shows that 30 percent of total educational funding goes to higher educational institutions that account for less than 3.5 percent of India's students.
What's more needed, some education experts say, is better teacher recruitment and training, higher pay for teachers who often earn salaries of less than $100 a month, and redeploying resources from higher education to primary schools.
``We are bumbling along with this outmoded system of elementary education, which is a real shame,'' says Krishna Kumar, director of the Central Institute of Education in Delhi.
Educators also are split on a growing private school system to replace the increasingly discredited state-run schools. Abul Khair Jalaluddin, a prominent architect of education in the Gandhi years, recently resigned from his government post, charging that education has been politicized and marked only by ``fanfare and failure.''
``Teachers and administrators are becoming cynical about reform. Corruption and inefficiency are institutionalized in the whole state-run system,'' says Mr. Jalaluddin, who thinks that private education alternatives should be given a chance. ``There's a new way of thinking among Indians who say we should come out of this rut and move from corruption and inefficiency to openness and accountability in education.''
Experts say the crisis in state-run education is evident in Solawata and other remote, backward villages. There, teacher absenteeism often is high because teachers refuse or lack the means to travel to their assigned schools.
In Rajasthan, whose 24 percent literacy rate is the lowest of all major states, the shiksha karmi project, run by the government and nongovernment organizations, was designed to meet the problems of teacher and student absenteeism.
Launched in 1982 on an experimental basis, there are now 13,700 students being taught during the day and evening by more than 300 shiksha karmis.
In Solawata, located 250 miles southwest of New Delhi at the end of a rutted, dusty road, there was no school until 1984. Even then, only about half of the 100 village children enrolled, and usually at least one-quarter of them failed to show up.
Today, Chaudhry and his shiksha karmi partner boast an enrollment of 74 with seven on the waiting list. Attendance is strong, with all 74 students present on a recent day.
Many educators are impressed with the project's success in keeping students who used to drop out, at least until the fifth grade. The Swedish government, which funds most of the project, has extended its support to the mid-1990s when Rajasthan is projected to have more than 4,000 shiksha karmis teaching almost 200,000 students.
The project's problems in Rajasthan mirror the magnitude of India's illiteracy problem. Shiksha karmis have been criticized by skeptical villagers, local leaders, and teachers groups as poorly qualified and underpaid.
The program is expensive because the shiksha karmis have at best a 10th grade education and require continuous and costly training. About 20 percent of the recruited educational workers are rejected after an initial one-month training session.
The educational workers, who are expected to visit the home when a child is absent from school, also have trouble enrolling girls. Night centers are drawing growing numbers of girls, who are needed at home during the day for domestic chores.
Still, social roadblocks remain in male-dominated Rajasthan where only 12 percent of the women can read and write, the worst record in the country.
In Nangal recently, 13-year-old Sayar, wearing the silver head ornament that is an emblem of Rajasthan's system of child marriages, watched a reading class from outside the village school. ``I want to study at night, but I'm busy with my domestic work and my father won't let me,'' she explained.
``I try my best to bring girls into the school, but parents object due to their work at home,'' says Chintamini, who was teaching in nearby Jaoli village, balancing one of her four children on her hip.
Still, the central government says Rajasthan's success justifies extending the project to Bihar and Orissa, two other states mired in poverty and illiteracy.
``We can't say miracles have happened,'' says Chatar Singh Mehta, who oversees the project in Rajasthan. ``But we have made progress.''