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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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote

‘Happy Fridge’: The Key To Bridge Food Wastage And Hunger Problem In India

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Rahul Khera and Gautam Jindal, volunteers (aka hunger heroes) at Feeding India, were among the many Delhi NCR residents accustomed to seeing hungry children pick up half-eaten burgers or stale sandwiches from the dustbin and savour those with the brightest smiles. Like many others, they also had the will to promote equitable food distribution but was perplexed about the approach, until they learnt about the community fridge initiative which has gained unprecedented success in Saudi Arabia and few other European countries. Meanwhile, community fridges were already being installed outside restaurants or in public places in a handful of cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Coimbatore and Kochi.

Say Goodbye To Throwing Away Excess Food Because Now You Can Donate The Food To The Needy – Happy Fridge

Thank you for overwhelming response for the Happy Fridge concept. We need more funds from you to install more fridges like this across India. With the limited funds avaialble Feeding India was able to install three fridges only. Kindly donate here http://bit.ly/happyfridge

Posted by The Logical Indian on Saturday, October 27, 2018

Needless to mention, with a shocking 103rd rank in the Global Hunger Index and a food wastage estimate of around Rs 58,000 crore – India was perhaps the best country to implement such an initiative. With Gautam’s help, an enthusiastic Rahul invested his own savings to install a ‘Happy Fridge’ outside his residence at Sun City, Sector 54 in Gurgaon. Set up in 2017 by these Feeding India volunteers, the fridge in Gurgaon has inspired the NGO to scale up the project across India.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

‘Happy Fridge’ fostered many smiles

It didn’t take long for the local residents to learn about this laudable endeavour. They welcomed it, as wastage of excess food was a recurring problem in almost every household. “Intimating the localities was no mammoth task, thanks to social media. However, it was difficult to spread the word among those who actually needed the food,” shares Rahul, who went from auto stands to slums, inviting rickshaw pullers, ragpickers or roadside vendors to avail the community fridge any time they feel hungry. “The security guards of our residential complex played a huge role in explaining how the fridge works to the beneficiaries,” he adds.

The operational and maintenance costs of the ‘ happy fridge ‘ are being maintained diligently by the community members.

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Making memories, sprouting awareness

“I remember one young man who had arrived from a village looking for some menial day job. Somehow he had run out of his paltry savings and had no money to buy one decent meal a day. For about a month, our happy fridge was his solace, till he earned his first salary from a housekeeping job,” shares a jubilant Rahul.

In another incident, a truck driver returning in the wee hours of midnight was starving after a whole day’s hard work. He had run out of cooking fuel at his home, so our fridge was at his rescue.

“The residents keep all sorts of palatable dishes in the happy fridge, ranging from dry snacks, fruits to cooked meals. Sometimes, they even keep raw vegetables, to ensure not a single bit of good food ends up in their trash while other people go hungry to bed,” reveals Rahul.

On an average, each happy fridge supplies around 10-15 meals in a day. The gratitude and pure smiles of the hungry souls after a fulfilling meal are more than enough to continue to motivate Rahul and his neighbours. In fact, inspired by him, many other communities in the Delhi-NCR region set up community fridges in their areas.

Feeding India will set up 500 Happy Fridges

Since the past few years, Feeding India has been a prominent organisation working in the forefront to solve the hunger problem in India. Primarily, they were involved in redistributing leftover food from weddings and parties among the underprivileged people in different cities of India. Their volunteers, better known as “Hunger Heroes of India”, worked actively to bridge the gap between food wastage and food crisis.

“We used to get a lot of calls from individual households to collect their excess food. However, unfortunately, we lacked the manpower and planning to launch our programme on a door to door basis. We were desperately looking for an alternative when we learnt about the community fridges,” shares Srishti Jain, co-founder of Feeding India.

After interacting with Rahul Khera and other campaigners of community fridges, Feeding India decided to amplify this extraordinary project throughout the length and breadth of India. Presently, they have launched the #FightFoodWaste campaign to install 500 community fridges – nicknamed ‘ Happy Fridge ’. So any passer-by – be it a kid going to school without a lunchbox, or a labourer returning home late at night with no promise of a dinner – can now grab a pack of biscuits or a bowl of ‘dal-chawal’ (rice & lentil soup) to satiate their hunger. Click here to contribute for ‘ Happy Fridge ‘ and ensure India never sleeps hungry again.

Feeding India also urges everyone to make a promise to stop wasting food and instead consider donating it to those in need.

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