Guwahati: Akshar Forum is changing the face of education for many underprivileged children in Assam. Located at the foothills of Nilachal Hills on the outskirts of Guwahati in Pamohi, the unique institution is advocating the concept of ‘earning while learning’, thereby solving both the issues of education (lack of) and child labour.
Akshar Forum accepts plastic waste as school fees and imparts not just education but also vocational skills to its students.
Founded in 2016 by Professor Alaka Sarma, Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar, Akshar Forum is killing three birds with one stone. One, the school is teaching kids for free — the only catch is that they have to bring 25 plastic bags per week; two, they are making the parents pledge against careless disposal of plastic bags in an attempt to address the problem of environmental degradation; and three, they are “using” child labour to end child labour.
A part of Akshar Foundation, Akshar Forum currently has 110 students in the age group of 4 to 15, among whom the older ones are learning and earning at the same time. Mazin Mukhtar, the co-founder of Akshar Foundation, said, “The school is designed is to help students combat poverty. Our strategy for that is to develop multiple social enterprises in the school that serve the dual purpose of [educating them and] employing teenage students.”
Students from Pamohi, Dipor Bil, Magupara and Boragaon were mostly working at the stone quarries in the area and making about Rs 200-250 a day. Since going to school meant no income, the parents of the kids were initially reluctant to send their kids to school. However, with Akshar Forum’s ‘earning with learning’ approach, they get to continue school while making some money at the same time.
One enterprise is an animal shelter for stray puppies where the teenagers are employed. The other is the flagship recycling centre where teenagers process the plastic into ‘ecobricks’ by compressing used plastic bags into used plastic bottles. Usually 20-40 packets can be compressed into one bottle depending on the size of the bottle.
An ecobrick is a plastic bottle packed with plastic to a set density to create a reusable building block. Ecobricks are used to make modular furniture, garden spaces and full-scale buildings such as schools and houses. As of now, Akshar Forum has not been selling them in the market, but are using them within the campus for landscaping purposes.
A native of New York, Mukhtar said, “The same amount of plastic packets if they were loose would take up a big area, or would cover a big part of Deepor Beel [dumping ground] or would be burnt into the atmosphere adding to the smog problem in Guwahati.”
The students get paid Rs 17-18 per bottle and can make four-five bottles per hour. This gives them enough earnings to stay at school. “The real priority is how can we have these teens earn enough money while developing the community, [and] enough money to stay at school and finish their education,” added Mukhtar, who studied Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at University of Maryland in the US before coming to India in 2013.
Parmita Sarma, co-founder of Akshar Foundation and Mukhtar’s wife, said that despite reluctance from parents when the school was set up in 2016, what came as a major boost for them was that students themselves wanted to attend school. “In fact, all the kids we have here enrolled themselves, their parents did not come for enrollment,” Sarma, who has a Master’s degree in Community Organisation and Development Practice from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Guwahati.
Mina Rompi, a student’s mother, said, “We are poor people, we can’t afford expensive schools, even for government schools, we can’t afford the daily travel expenses. [But] We are really grateful that [Akshar Forum] is teaching our kids for free, giving them food and clothing for free as well. They even pick and drop the kids in school bus for free.”
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What pleases her more is the fact that the school has taken the responsibility for getting the children jobs if they perform well.
About the future plans for Akshar Forum, Sarma said that the aim is to cover 100 government schools across India in the next five years. “At the moment, we are focusing on government schools as the cost per child is very low compared to our own school. If you want to reach out to millions of kids, we have to educate one child at very low cost.”