Inspired by the legendary cultural icon of Assam, Bhupen Hazarika’s son, Tej Hazarika; Mazin Mukhtar set out from New York into an unprecedented task which turned out to be revolutionary and daunting with time.
Mazin engineered the idea behind “Akshar Foundation” which ‘finds deep roots in the belief of radical changes in the education system’ in Assam.
TNT- The Northeast Today spoke to Mazin on his initiative, vision and the most recent recognition which Akshar has been conferred upon by the United Nations.
TNT – You had studied Aerospace engineering in New York, before locating to India?
Actually I studied Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland, in the outskirts of Washington D.C. I started at age 15, was a research assistant in a Space Systems Laboratory and had a full-time job offer from Boeing by age 16. My dream was to eventually join NASA and help establish a new home for humankind in the stars. I was convinced that it was too late to save our planet from the devastating calamities we face: climate change, rising sea levels, coastal flooding, pollution, nuclear proliferation, refugee crises, increased drought and famine, ocean acidification, drug-resistant diseases, the list goes on and on.
However, I had a complete change of heart and determined to set my mind to fixing this planet, instead of finding a new one. I believed the way to do this was to reform the education system, so billions of uneducated people in poverty could be mobilised to solve our global challenges.
TNT – What were the practical challenges which you had to confront in realizing the project?
Some parents did not believe in the value of education, did not bother to send their kids to school, even though the school was free. This was especially true of parents of girls, who often told us not waste our effort on their girls. Some parents wanted to propagate backwards thinking on caste, race, and gender, intimidating other children that they didn’t want to study alongside their children. There have been some challenges, for sure.
But mostly, members of the community have been excited to learn and grow and develop their community. We have a Mother’s Empowerment Group for the mothers of our students, where they learn to make handicrafts, handmade soap, they learn to read, write, and learn to use tablets. The mothers are often little more than children themselves, having married so young, and still have that eagerness to learn. They attend Parent Teacher Conferences, and they come out to help plant trees. They are excited about the prospect of cleaning up their community, developing businesses, and lifting themselves into the middle class.
TNT – Akshar was recently recognised at the UN for the unique model which Akshar has developed. Please elaborate a bit on it?
Akshar’s unique teaching model, which we call Meta-Teaching, consists of teaching older students how to teach younger students. This method allows our school to grow exponentially, as we keep training new teachers, who can then train more teachers, and so on, in a benign pyramid scheme. Older students are paid to teach, which keeps unemployed youths busy at school, instead of other risky pursuits. Older students also receive valuable vocational training as teachers, learn about earning and saving, and develop strong leadership abilities. Younger students receive a high degree of attention and care, for low cost to the school. It’s a win-win-win situation, and it’s the key to quality education for the masses and Akshar was recognized for this unique approach and invited to present at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York City at a meeting of the UN NGO Committee on Mental Health. We were invited to present by the Vice-chairman of that committee. The response from the crowd was overwhelming, with great support and enthusiasm levelled at us and shouts of “Best presentation!” and “You guys are the future!” It was a great honour and major boost to our morale. Akshar is currently in the process of the gaining Consultative Status with the United Nations, joining the specialised cadre of NGOs that consult the United Nations on grassroots, bottom-up approaches.
TNT – Akshar states its mission as “World Peace, Climate Stability, and the Eradication of Poverty”. How do you co-relate it to a Common Plan of Action?
Akshar holds firmly that these lofty goals, which match the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, are achievable ONLY through Education. With education and skills, impoverished communities can find employment, start businesses, and rise out of poverty. With education, consumers can make responsible decisions about electing politicians and supporting businesses that pollute and contribute to climate change; they can also develop the future technologies that will enable us to heal the environment. Many of the conflicts in the world today can be traced back to climate change and unemployment, including the crisis in Syria, largely caused by drought driving unemployed farmers into the cities. Climate change and unemployment lead directly to instability, which often leads to violence. So, addressing climate and unemployment through Education can lead directly to greater Peace and Security for all.
TNT – Considering the demography of Assam, what is the most challenging aspect of functioning?
The first Akshar Forum serves the villages of Pamohi, Garchuk and Boragaon, in the outskirts of Guwahati. Most of the students, as well as most of the adult teachers-in-training, are from Tribal backgrounds, mostly from the Karbi Tribe. There are many Hindu and a few Muslim students. However, the only issues we’ve had in terms of discrimination were surrounding matters of class and race. Darker skinned families with seemingly Bangladeshi features are discriminated against and suffer from low self-esteem due to this discrimination, even if they currently identify as members of the Karbi Tribe. The discrimination and sexism against young girls is also quite pronounced, leading to high levels of mistrust, deceit, despair among our teenage girl students. We realised that we cannot adequately educate our students without also teaching their parents and families universal principles of gender, class, and race equality.
TNT – Most NGOs consider working in a multi-stakeholder system. Does Akshar follow line with it?
While Akshar strives to be a single destination for all poverty needs (providing Education, Vocation, Medication, Nutrition, Hydration, and Sanitation), we do believe in working together with other NGOs, as well government and corporates where possible. By entering Consultative Status with the UN, we hope to participate in many fora for sharing strategies with other successful NGOs. We also recently participated in the SPO India CSR Summit & Awards, where we were honored with the award for “Emerging NGO of the Year.” Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is forming an increasingly significant portion of efforts to aid social causes, with much of the financial and technical know-how of corporations filtering into the practices of NGOs. So, greater interaction and cooperation can lead to better outcomes; but at the same time, too many cooks spoil the broth. Too many NGOs and Government agencies focus on one particular area, like education or healthcare or water, while disregarding the rest. Without addressing all of the needs, these interventions amount to little more than band-aid solutions, alleviating poverty, but not getting people out of poverty. It’s time for a holistic, integrated approach, but very few other organisations tend to all the needs of communities.
TNT – Few years down the line, what further plans for Akshar?
Akshar will keep opening Forums, providing access to all the basic necessities for communities in need. Many of our graduates will go on to serve as teachers in our new locations. We are also in the process of establishing fee-charging private schools, Akshar Academies, for middle and upper class students. Revenues from the Academies will partly fund the Forums for the poor, so middle and upper class students will subsidise the education of underprivileged children. Also, students from the Academies will participate in community development in undeserved communities, performing recycling, water filtration, medical camps, disaster relief and more. We hope to bridge the gap between rich and poor and give privileged children a glimpse into solving real world problems.
by- Payal Bhattacharjee
The writer can be reached at –email@example.com