The Akshar School Revolution: Where Plastic Pays for Progress

Every week, pupils at Akshar school must bring up to 20 items of plastic collected from their homes and the local area as their ‘fee’ for tuition. Photograph: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images
In the village, plastic waste was once burned as fuel, leading children to suffer from coughs and wheezes in their classrooms. However, at the Akshar School, this waste has been repurposed as tuition fees. 
In the tranquil setting of Assam’s Pamohi village, dawn paints a peculiar picture. Students, bags slung over their shoulders, head to school. Instead of the typical books and stationery, these bags are filled with a currency unique to this community: plastic waste.


The Akshar School Revolution

Welcome to Akshar School, an innovation in education and environmental protection conceived by Mazin Mukhtar, 32, and his wife Parmita Sarma, 30. Established in 2016, this institution sprouted in a region where children, despite the promise of youth, found themselves laboring in stone quarries, earning meager sums of around $3 (£2.25) a day.
The school’s inception was twofold: to provide children a refuge from labor and to address the environmental catastrophe unfolding in their community. The noxious fumes from burning plastic, once a common disposal practice, were causing the village’s children to cough and wheeze, even within the sanctity of their classrooms.
Students attending Covid-safe outdoor classes. The school now has 110 pupils between the ages of 4 and 15. Photograph: Sarpil Nandan Deka via The Guardian
Mukhtar reminisces, “We approached parents with a proposition – send your household plastic with your children to school. But they were resistant, continuing to burn their waste at home.” Sarma then introduced a groundbreaking idea: fees that could be paid either monetarily or in the form of plastic waste. This led to a seismic shift – a 100% compliance rate from parents, each also signing a pledge to cease burning plastic.
With around 110 students aged 4 to 15 and seven dedicated teachers, the school is a humming hub of transformation. Sarma notes, “Every week, we accumulate more than 10,000 pieces of plastic, which are ingeniously converted into eco-bricks, used for construction purposes. The clouds of toxic smoke have dissipated remarkably.”
Their educational philosophy goes beyond traditional schooling. Older students mentor their juniors, earning toy currency notes as wages. “This virtual money can be redeemed for real goods like snacks and toys at local shops,” says Mukhtar, underlining their principle of ‘Learn more to earn more.’ Such incentives, coupled with the academic progress, have fueled a remarkable change in the community.
During the pandemic, the school metamorphosed into a community nexus. Donning full PPE, classes were conducted alfresco. The premises also became a food relief center, with senior students identifying and addressing the needs of the local community.
Akshar’s positive ripple effects are evident in testimonials from both parents and students. Sompa Boro, whose two children attend Akshar, shares, “Akshar’s education model has not only supported us financially but also transformed our mindset positively.”
The plastic waste collected from students is stuffed into bottles to make eco-bricks, which are used for building projects. Photograph: Jen Kalita Via The Guardian
The transformation is profound. Sarma narrates, “One of our students, who barely spoke upon joining, now not only thrives academically but also tutors children from English-medium schools.”
The Guwahati authorities have recognized Akshar’s success. Collaborations are in the pipeline to replicate this model in five government schools, and a sustainable landscaping course is on the horizon.
B Kalyan Chakravarthy, principal secretary to Assam’s education department, believes Akshar showcases the fusion of education and environmental consciousness. “It symbolizes what education should aim for, laying the foundation for a broader societal awareness that tackles climate change,” he opines.
With the community’s robust backing, Mukhtar and Sarma have solidified their vision for Akshar. As Sarma poignantly adds, “The children’s zest for learning is palpable. They cherish every school day, often wishing for no holidays.”
In Akshar, a beacon of hope glows, signaling a brighter, greener future for India’s next generation.

Lead image courtesy of Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images. 

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