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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2,00,000 meals served
Emergency funds sent to 350 families

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
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

Goonj Is Working With 1000’s Of Volunteers & Partner NGOs To Provide Covid-19 Relief In 18 States

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With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.

After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.

Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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2,00,000 meals served
Emergency funds sent to 350 families

Goonj’s focus: 

Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.

Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.

“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.

Direct Monetary and Material Transfer

Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.

Information till 10th April 2020:

  • Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
  • Reached 17,700 families
  • Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
  • 77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
  • Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
  • Made 42,800 cloth face masks
  • 24,900 cloth sanitary napkins produced
  • Produced 1500 litres of organic sanitiser

In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.

In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.

This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.

The need is huge.. We are there.. Need You too !!

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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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