GUWAHATI: This is the story of a couple, Mazin Mukhtar, a native of the USA and Parmita Sarma, an Assam local, who have been drawing global attention with their work.

Dedicated to bringing a change for the better among underprivileged children in the outskirts of Guwahati, Mukhtar and Sarma have started a school with a difference. The school is named Akshar Forum and the difference is that they take plastic waste as school fees.

“We started doing this in October last year. It’s a kind of fee as in return they get their lessons in school… or rather, it’s homework. Because, anyway, we don’t charge any fee from the students. It’s great to see the change happen through the participation of the students,” Mukhtar told The Citizen.

The novel idea has brought a huge change among students and the local community – Pamohi in the outskirts of Guwahati near Deepr Beel, one of the largest water bodies in the area.

Say for 14 year old Yuvraj Kashyap, who lives in Boregaon nearby, and had hardly any idea about the ill effects of plastic on the environment till a few years ago.

Yuvraj, his family members and neighbours never cared about plastic waste. Many a time they would simply burn it or just throw it away. This created a threat to the area’s biodiversity, especially in the adjacent water body which is home to nearly 120 species of birds.

But today, he is not only aware of the hazardous nature of plastic waste, he also takes active part in collecting this waste and ‘recycling’ it in a different way.

“I carry the waste including water bottles, chips and biscuit packets to school from my home. I didn’t know that using these plastic wastes, we could create something new. No one was aware of the fact that plastic can be that harmful,” Yuvraj told The Citizen.

Even his neighbours have changed, according to Yuvraj, and have gradually understood the deadly effects of plastic.

All the 100-odd students of Akshar Forum gather the plastic waste in their households and carry it to their schools once or twice a week.

Packets are tucked inside bottles to create plastic bricks at the Akshar Recycle Centre. These are used to make walkways, circles around the trees and for other similar purposes.

Teens are employed to collect plastic from homes in the area surrounding the school, a model that can be replicated in every school to effect large scale change, feels Mukhtar.

For Yuvraj and other students from the nearby villages, it’s a great joy to see this new concept being implemented.

Parents like Minu Bora, whose elder son Ankur Bora studies in Class IX in the school, they have learnt many a thing through their children.

“We used to either burn or throw the plastics. But now we know the ill effects of it. We are quite satisfied with the kind of education this school is providing to our kids,” Bora told The Citizen.

Mukhtar met Sarma during a school project when they decided to come up with a school where underprivileged students could be provided quality education. And could also earn while still learning.

They started the school in 2015-16. It was difficult for them to convince the parents initially, and they started out with just 20 students from villages nearby.

Most of the students were struggling to continue their studies due to poverty, or were dropouts.

“Many of them were engaged in stone quarries and other works so they could support their parents in whatever way. But we convinced them and their parents. Now, all of them are doing well and participate in all the activities here in the school,” said Sarma, a graduate from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Gradually, the parents also realised the potential of the school and students started liking the way they were taught.

Akshar Forum now has 110 students aged between 4 and 15. These students get certificates from the National Institute of Open Schooling.

The senior students are made to teach the younger ones and in return they are paid a small honorarium. This motivates the students.

“Apart from that they take great pride in teaching and helping the junior ones. There is also a process of self evaluation. These things keep them going in full energy,” said Sarma.

For the students, it’s a wonderful experience which was not possible anywhere else.

Gyandeep Rangshal, who dropped out of school for poverty and started working at a stone quarry before joining Akshar Forum, said that it’s a dream for him to be here.

“My father is too old to work. So, I had given up studies and started working. We are too poor to afford books and other stuff. But I think I’m lucky enough to be here. Now, I can read English and also can do maths. I would like to thank sir and madam,” 14-year old Gyandeep told The Citizen.

The students are also given training for sporting activities. “I have played a few tournaments. I’m not sure of my future but I would like to be a footballer,” said Gyandeep as his friend Yuvraj nodded.

Akshar’s secondary curriculum balances practical skills with abstract learning. It combines carpentry with mathematics, solar technology with physics, embroidery with economics, teaching with psychology, recycling with ecology, landscaping with biology.

The campus, students and staff have sheltered and found homes for 15 dogs, including injured and abandoned dogs, in the first year that the campus Animal Shelter has been running.

They were vaccinated, dewormed, and cleaned up, then homes were found for them, with regular monitoring. Akshar takes care of all their medical needs, sterilisation and post-op care.

“Teens are employed to take care of the puppies’ feeding and medical issues, applying daily medicines, and caring for dogs for 10 days after their sterilisation procedures, before they are sent home. Any reports of sick or injured dogs in the area are addressed quickly. If every school implements a similar model, we can end the suffering of street animals, while will students learn empathy and basic medical care,” said Mukhtar.

Another interesting fact: here in this school, the students don’t want holidays. “In my earlier school our teachers used to beat us, but here it’s different. No one even bullies us. We just love the environment here. So, we love to come to school every day,” said Seema Kalita, a student of Class V.

Mukhtar said they have recorded more than 95 percent attendance from the students. They have a vehicle which ferries the students from their homes.

Akshar is training and deploying fellows to reform underperforming government schools, in partnership with local governments and The Education Alliance.

Mukhtar and Sarma will soon introduce the ‘Akshar Fellowships’ that will train talented graduates at the school, which is a model school, for several weeks. Later these fellows will try to implement the system in other government schools.

“Fellows will work with school leaders and teachers to implement innovative methods for two years, leaving behind a transformed school with vastly improved outcomes. Akshar is on a mission to reform 100 government schools in five years. We are fighting for the eradication of poverty, through quality education,” said Mazin Mukhtar.

All Photographs Surajit Sharma