Can we pay something other than money in any form as our school fees? Impossible right. But Akshar School in Assam’s Pamohi village has an answer to it. Pay plastic waste collected from homes and the local area as fees. Interesting isn’t it! This is an initiative introduced by the founders of Akshar School Mazin Mukhtar and his wife ParmitaSarma to reduce plastic burning in the area, causing huge environmental hazards and adversely affecting the students’ health.
The school was started in 2016 by an African-American who came to India in 2013 from New York to work on a school project in Assam where he met Sarma, a student of social work at Guwahati University. The couple set up Akshar by raising money and funding from private donors to provide education for children in the area, most of whom were working in the local stone quarries, earning about $3 (£2.25) a day. Starting with just 20 students, Akshar now has seven teachers managing 110 children aged from 4 to 15, and a 100-strong waiting list. And all of these students go to school every morning with a huge bag of plastic waste as their ‘fee’ for tuition, turning them into ecowarriors.
Initially, the parents were unwilling to send their kids with plastic waste, but when they were given an option to either pay fees in cash or in plastic waste, this new policy saw full compliance from all parents who also signed a pledge to stop burning plastics. These steps have significantly decreased the toxic smoke that covered the area converting around 10,000 pieces of plastic each month into eco-bricks for construction.
Apart from teaching students to take responsibility for their surroundings and strive to improve them, the school also uses innovative methods to reduce child labour by devising a peer-to-peer learning model, whereby older kids would tutor the younger ones, and in return, get paid in toy currency notes that can be used to buy snacks, clothes, toys, and shoes at local shops. Besides, students are also trained in vocational subjects, including how to install solar panels and attend carpentry and electronics workshops etc.
Even during the pandemic, classes were held outdoors in full PPE and the students were involved in delivering rations to feed about 15,000 people in Guwahati’s slums and villages.
The school has had no dropouts in the last couple of years and has been transforming the lives of its pupils who were disrespected and abused by society. They have now signed with the Guwahati authorities to implement the Akshar model in five government schools and plans to start a sustainable landscaping course.