Former Child Labourers Pay ‘School Fees’ With Dry Plastic Waste & Earn Salary By Teaching Their Juniors

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Little students standing in a queue with a bunch of plastic packets in their hands – this is a common sight if one visits Akshar Foundation school in Pamohi, Assam. The plastic packets are actually the ‘school fee’ students need to pay monthly. How does that work? Mazin Mukhtar, the co-founder of Akshar, explains to Efforts For Good, “The local villagers used to burn their plastic waste after every few days. Toxic fumes would waft into our classrooms and loom over the neighbourhood. So, a few months ago, we included the ‘plastic school fee’ in our list of recycling projects. The school is free, instead, students are asked to collect all dry plastic waste from their homes and submit to us. We then teach the students to make recycle these and use in small construction projects on our campus. We have been able to spread awareness among the families of the students about the plastic menace.”

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

How the plastic school fees work

The recycling projects at Akshar deserve special mention. The plastic bags and packets that the students bring from their homes and neighbourhood are collected together and turned into ‘Eco-bricks’. “Students make these as their extra-academic activities. It is really simple. 30-40 packets are pressed and stuffed inside a plastic bottle, turning it into a sturdy building material unit. These are later used to make small structures like garden fences, walls etc.,” Mazin reveals.

Such initiatives are not only making the kids environmentally conscious, but it is also enabling the local community to adopt eco-friendly ways of living. “Our students are trying to convince their families to stop dumping or burning of plastic. We put a sign in front of the homes and shops who have agreed to take part in our recycling drive. This helps spread the word,” he shares.

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Student-teachers earn toy money

The Akshar school is perhaps the first-of-its-kind in India. Housing around a hundred students from 4 to 15 years of age, the school follows a peer-to-peer learning model, where senior students are assigned to tutor a group of juniors. And there are incentives as well, for these little teachers. According to the time and effort they put in, they are paid a periodical salary in toy currency notes. “They can use these notes in local shops to buy snacks, toys, shoes and even clothes,” informs Mazin.

One of the construction projects which used plastic bottles used as bricks

However, life was not always this fun for the student-teachers at Akshar. “I had studied in my village school up to class 4. I had to drop out after that due to financial constraints. Instead, I started working in a sand quarry,” shares one of the students, a former child labourer. “I used to work in a stone quarry,” another young boy chimes in. Now, both of them can be found explaining the basic rules of addition or spelling out ‘ELEPHANTS’ to the toddlers at their school. Technology plays an important role inside Akshar classrooms, as students can be spotted handling laptops or tablets with ease.

From child labourers to responsible teachers

Akshar admits child labourers from the local tribal communities, along with children of the local villages, and exposes them to a nurturing environment.

The older students are taught by expert adult teachers and then they are delegated to mentor young children during school hours. Teaching their younger counterparts helps these youngsters acquire confidence, responsibility and a strong work ethic. They go home and guide their younger siblings the same way. Earning the toy money automatically hones their financial management skills and grooms them to be a responsible citizen in future.

Senior students teaching junior students using tabs

“The popular notion among the low-income families here is that if they send their children to work, they will fetch some extra earning for the household. It took time for us to dissuade them. That is another reason why we offer toy money as salary to our student-teachers; it can help them with their basic needs, sort of like pocket money. And they get the sense of earning through learning,” explains Mazin.

Other activities at Akshar School

Caring for stray animals features in the curriculum of Akshar. They involve their students to take care of stray dogs, from feeding them to monitoring the daily medication for the injured or sick animals. The school shelters such helpless stray dogs for days and the students provide them with the best treatment and care, after which they are offered for adoption.

Akshar School Assam
Students and teachers planting saplings

The students also participate in tree plantation inside their school, which is constructed in a completely sustainable manner, with natural materials like bamboo, wood, clay and recycled plastic. Gardening, carpentry, the basics of solar technology, farming, electronics – for everyone else, the list might seem like a series of unconnected professions, but these are actually things that are taught to the students at Akshar. “We aim to build them into complete citizens with expertise in all life skills. Only this way we can dream of a better society one day,” Mazin expresses.

Akshar School Assam
Students helping to install solar panels in the school premises

Efforts For Good will bring you more stories of schools that are proving how knowledge goes beyond classrooms and learning is an immersive experience too extensive to be contained in textbooks.

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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