The Indian school where students pay for lessons with plastic waste

Nov 26, 2020 by

Villagers once burned the toxic waste as fuel, but a pioneering couple’s radical education model uses it much more creatively

Students attending Covid-safe outdoor classes. The school now has 110 pupils between the ages of 4 and 15.Students attending Covid-safe outdoor classes. The school now has 110 pupils between the ages of 4 and 15. Photograph: Sarpil Nandan Deka
Neeta Lal in Pamohi

Every morning, students in Assam’s Pamohi village go to school clutching a bag of plastic waste, in exchange for which they will get their day’s lessons.

Akshar School, founded by Mazin Mukhtar, 32, and his wife Parmita Sarma, 30, has turned its pupils into ecowarriors by waiving school fees and helping to stop local people burning used plastic.

The village’s toxic bonfires were causing such an environmental hazard, children were coughing and wheezing in their classrooms.

The school was founded to provide an education for children in the area, most of whom were working in the local stone quarries, earning about $3 (£2.25) a day. Few of the hard-pushed parents were keen to send an earning member of the family to study.

“When we asked the parents to send their household plastic with their children on the school bus, almost none of them complied. They preferred to burn their plastic at home. So my wife told them we would start charging fees. Fees which they could pay in cash, or in plastic waste from their homes,” says Mukhtar.

The alternative school fees policy quickly resulted in 100% compliance from parents who also signed a pledge to stop burning plastic.

To strengthen the bridges being built in the community, the school also offers vocational training. Students are taught how to install solar panels and attend carpentry and electronics workshops, says Muhktar, 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 in 2016, raising money to build it and funding from private donors to run it.

From the original 20 students, Akshar now has seven teachers managing 110 children aged from 4 to 15, and a 100-strong waiting list.

“We try to teach students to take responsibility for their surroundings and to strive to improve them,” says Sarma. “As we collect at least 25 units of plastic every week from each student, we are able to muster upwards of 10,000 pieces of plastic each month. These are transformed into eco-bricks for construction. The clouds of toxic smoke from plastic burning which used to plague the school have decreased significantly.”

Source: The Indian school where students pay for lessons with plastic waste | Global development | The Guardian

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