In 2013, fate brought couple Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar together. Mazin had arrived in India from New York on a school project which led him to meet Parmita, a Masters student in Social Work, who coincidentally was also planning to work in the education sector. They were not only united by their love for each other, but also a drive to improve some of India’s most pressing problems — lack of education and plastic pollution.
In June 2016 the pair founded Akshar Forum, in the Indian village of Pamohi, Assam with the aim of teaching the children to become “agents of change in their own social circles.”
The school started with only 20 kids but now has over 100 between the ages of 4 to 15 years studying to improve the future of their village. Each child brings in at least 25 items of plastic waste per week, as part of their contribution to their community and the environment.
“We wanted to start a free school for all, but stumbled upon this idea after we realised a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area. I still remember how our classrooms would be filled with toxic fumes every time someone in the nearby areas would burn plastics. Here it was a norm to burn waste plastic to keep warm. We wanted to change that and so started to encourage our students to bring their plastic waste as school fees,” Sarma told local news outlet, Better India who, alongside Mukhtar, founded the school in June 2016.
An exceptionally unusual school by all accounts, Akshar does not accept students by age but by knowledge level.
“Here, you will find students attending classes sitting in open spaces under bamboo roofs. The idea behind this is to break open the conventional ideas of education. And so, instead of age-specific grades or class, we have levels, where students of various age groups study the same thing all at the same time,” says Parmita.
Additionally, the curriculum does not follow those of conventional schools, it is designed to fit the needs of the villagers:
“We realised that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children.” said Mazin “One of the first challenges was to convince the local villagers to send their kids to school, as most of them would work as labourers in the nearby stone quarries. So among other things, we had to design a curriculum that would fit their needs and build a creative pipeline of employment, post-education.”
The school offers underprivileged families the chance to give their children an education without worrying about it being a financial burden — the plastic pays.
At the stone quarries, Parmita says that children get paid Rs 150-200 per day. Although the school is unable to match that monetarily, they implemented, “a mentorship 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… in a nearby shop to buy small things like snacks, toys, chocolates, etc.”
In another brilliantly ecological move to educate the villagers Pamohi, they are taught to turn the plastic they previously used as a currency into various construction materials that can help in creating better infrastructure on campus. A valuable lesson in the concept of a circular economy that could help progress the development of such communities.
“One of the biggest problems with the sector is the relevance of education. These kids needed the right blend of theory and practical knowledge that could enable them enough skills for various job opportunities,” added Mazin.
Consequently, the school curriculum — designed around industry needs and student preferences — now has an array of vocational courses including solar panelling, dancing, farming, cosmetology and carpentry.
Mazin and Parmita, who married in 2018 aspire to take Akshar across the nation and build 100 schools across India.