Meena (not her real name) didn't tell her parents when the older boys started harassing her on the hour-long walk to school from her home in Madanpur Khadar, south Delhi – grabbing her hand and shouting "kiss me" – because she knew she would get the blame, as if she had somehow encouraged them. She was right: when her family found out, they banned her from going back to school, worried about the effect on their "honour" if she was sexually assaulted. The plan now is to get her married. She is 16.

Gulafsha is luckier: her mother is determined she will become a doctor. But there are 70 pupils in a class at her school, and the teachers often simply don't turn up. The drinking water tanks are so filthy the pupils bring their own water. "I have never gone to a toilet at school in all these years, they are so bad," the 14-year-old says. She doesn't know how, but somehow her mother saves 900 rupees a month to pay for private tuition in three subjects.

Sumen, 35, is battling for her child's future, too. Her nine-year-old son has learning disabilities and she has tried and failed to get him into school every year since he was old enough. Finally, the authorities have agreed he should get some education, but it's only for one day a week. Sumen, a domestic help who never went to school herself, wonders if she should have tried to teach him at home: "But if I haven't studied, how much could I do for him?"

Four years ago, the World Bank upgraded India from a "poor" country to a middle-income one. As commentators were at pains to point out in November, when the UK announced it would end aid to India from 2015, the country has a space programme, 48 billionaires and its own aid budget. Under its Right to Education (RTE) Act, passed in 2009, a free and compulsory education is guaranteed for all children aged between six and 14, and the most recent figures for primary school enrolment stand at an impressive-sounding 98%.