Pamohi, Guwahati, India – Gyandeep Rangshal worked as a child labourer, breaking boulders and loading and unloading trucks of sand at a nearby stone quarry, earning Rs 250 (approximately $3.5) a day.
He attended a local village school on and off, but had to drop out – he was simply too poor.
The 11-year-old’s father is an alcoholic, and he grew up in a home where domestic abuse and beatings were frequent.
According to Unicef, more than 10 million children are engaged in labour in India, most of whom are engaged in agricultural “jobs” in rural areas. Two million “work” – or more accurately are exploited by employers – in urban settings.
In mid-2016, Gyandeep’s friend Prasanta told him about a newly-established free school in their neighbourhood that he had joined – Akshar Forum.
“It has been three years since I joined Akshar Forum and I’m happy to be here. Unlike in my previous school, we aren’t spanked or scolded. The [subjects] we find difficult are explained in detail until we understand them,” said Gyandeep.
Located in Pamohi, a village on the fringes of Guwahati in Assam, Akshar Forum was founded by Parmita Sarma and her American husband Mazin Mukhtar.
“When I was younger I thought I could change the world if I joined politics, and so, I wanted to be a politician. However, after my father Nagen Sarma, the then minister of forests and public works [in Assam], was assassinated in 2000 and my mother joined politics, I realised how dirty it was. I decided to work in the education sector soon after,” said Sarma.
The couple wanted to help child labourers and those who couldn’t afford school fees.
Starting in June 2016 with just 20 children, they currently have 110 pupils and students aged between four and 15 years old and six qualified teachers – but this is no ordinary school.
Older children teach the younger ones, while adult teachers supervise the process.
“The older students are paid on the basis of the difficulty level of the lessons they teach and their ability to teach.
“Their money is put in a bank account which they can withdraw on Fridays. We introduced this practice, because it was necessary to make education economically and socially viable for the children or they are forced to go back to the dangers of being child labourers,” said Sarma.
Adult teachers, meanwhile, educate the older children.
Study materials, uniforms, the school bus service and food are provided free of cost to the children.
But the children must pay a peculiar fee – they must bring in 25 items of dry plastic every week.
“We were shocked to learn that the families of these children burned plastic waste to keep themselves warm during winter. We have educated the children on how hazardous this practice is and made the parents promise that they wouldn’t do this again. Instead, we asked the children to bring the plastic waste to school, where we taught them to recycle it and make eco-bricks that can be used in simple construction work,” said Sarma.
Apart from the office room, the school runs on solar power and the students are made aware of environmental conservation.
They are also taught basic first aid and there is an emphasis on vocational education.
“Our kids will take the class 10 examinations under the National Institute of Open Schooling, and we try to give practical knowledge and skills which would help them in finding employment.
“We do not want to increase the already large pool of educated unemployed youth and [instead want to] make our students skilled enough to be self-employed,” Sarma said.
Gardening, solar technology, carpentry, electronics and lighting are some of the activities Akshar focuses on.
It also has an animal shelter in its premises; more than 20 injured and abandoned dogs have been rescued and placed in loving homes.
The school involves the students’ unemployed parents by offering ideas on making bags, pillows and other items from recycled plastic. Some parents are also employed by the school.
The Delhi state government has adopted the Akshar model in its SDMC Primary School in Lajpat Nagar.
Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed, a retired professor specialised on development, said poor access to education is the root cause of social problems.
“Akshar Forum understands this basic issue both philosophically and practically. In the absence of schools like Akshar, poor children can’t have access to schools. Naturally, their parents will motivate them to work in paddy fields, stone quarries, hotels, restaurants, garages and as domestic help,” he told Al Jazeera.
“A huge amount of expenditure is incurred in sustaining this school. One needs relentless efforts to generate funds from different sources, including tapping into the Corporate Social Responsibility funds.
“In order to promote more schools of this variety, society needs more people who are eager to come forward to help, and a sensitive government which helps such schools.”
Although the school has been running for the last three years, it does not have adequate funding for the current financial year, which poses a threat to its very existence.
“We want to make a bigger impact on the lives of children,” said Sarma.