They call themselves the Young Guardians of Manipur and rightfully so. This group, which consists mostly of students, have taken it upon themselves to help those incarcerated below the poverty line live a dignified life.
“I was really surprised,” says Mahesh Ningthoujam. “I didn’t expect this kind of contribution when I started the fundraiser.” This overwhelmed 25-year-old is the founder of Young Guardians of Manipur, a group of youth that came together in July 2016, to help those living in deplorable conditions below the poverty line.
“We have always heard people giving advice on how to change our society but they usually vanish into thin air when it comes to practical matters. So, with the belief that change should start from ourselves not from a Tom, Dick or Harry, we started this group.”
Sometime around August last year, this group stumbled upon an 85-year-old woman, grandma Ibempishak, who, while the rest of the country was celebrating 70 years of Independence, was collecting plastic bottles that she could sell to feed her three granddaughters. Whenever she couldn’t find bottles and other items to sell, she begged from the 57 Mountain Division army camp, present near her home in Leimakhong.
Leimakhong is a small township located 20km from Imphal, Manipur. There are several government schemes implemented in the region, such as the Integrated Rural Development Programme and Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana, which are specifically targeted at providing sustainable and a decent livelihood for people who live in extreme poverty. “But we were shocked to know that despite all the schemes and yojanas, her family didn't get any benefits till now,” says Mahesh.
Grandma Ibempishak earns about Rs 30 on a bad day and Rs 50 on a good day; her larder is stacked with empty bottles, one of which has rice in meagre quantities expected to feed a family of four. Her home has no water supply and, unsurprisingly, no plumbing for a toilet. The latrine is therefore, open and dangerously unhygienic. “So, we planned to build a sanitary latrine for them,” as a start, he says. The group is also keeping the family afloat by providing them with food and clothing until a more permanent solution can be reached.
This 85-year-old woman is not the only beneficiary of this youth’s benevolence and their sense of social responsibility. There are other cases of poverty-stricken families that these young guardians have taken upon their shoulders. But before Mahesh begins to tell me their stories, he delves into the story that led to the making of these conscious laden guardians.
“I have always wanted to grow up to be rich,” he says, but soon adds a catch “so I can help the poor.” Mahesh is currently studying business management at AMC in Bengaluru and it was during a yearly trip home that he decided it was time to begin, rich or not.
Trekking along the hills, he chanced upon an orphanage home. When he enquired further, he found that the caretaker was as corrupt as they go, and was guzzling funds meant for the children. Mahesh then decided to raise money himself so he could directly provide the children with necessities. With difficulty, he managed to collect Rs 4,000, a sum largely contributed by close family as he couldn’t find the support from anyone else.
This lack of support, morally and financially, was the biggest challenge he faced when he started out. Not only did people refuse to contribute, “they mocked me,” he says. “They said I had willingly set out to ruin my life and that this is useless.”
What started then as a selfless effort by five friends has now grown into a non-profit organisation of 32 official members. “Everyone who turned me down then, supports me now,” he says. Strangely, his tone is not scornful but sounds mostly thankful that people are finally seeing the importance of this effort.
Although the support is tremendous now, and only growing, Mahesh and group select their members with great scrutiny. “Many people want to join us now, but we don’t want to lose the identity and purpose of the group. So we do background checks, and interview them before making additions to the team.” It is possibly this cautiousness that has led to a closely knit group of like-minded individuals, and is allowing them to take on the burden of those unprivileged.
Even before he narrated grandma Ibempishak’s tragic tale, Mahesh began the conversation on a grim note: “We have come across a more serious case, the family of a single mother that is in a worse condition.”
“Her name is Chaobi (name changed) and she has three daughters,” he elaborates. “Her husband was a drunkard who had never helped the family in making the ends meet. She has struggled all alone to feed the three girls. She works in a hotel and would bring back remains from the hotel and feed the girls.” But ever since her husband died a few days ago, she hasn’t been able to leave her daughters to go to work. When Young Guardians of Manipur met them, the family hadn’t eaten for two days and were living under a leaky roof.
All the girls have various types of skin diseases but Chaobi’s first request to the group was a container big enough to store water, highlighting a disheartening fact that the poor cannot afford to prioritise health in the face of immediate survival. “She told us that instead of working as a cleaner in hotels, she dreams of owning her own hotel no matter how big or small it is,” he says sombrely.
The tremendous response they received while crowdsourcing funds for grandma Ibempishak has allowed the group to divert funds to cases like Chaobi’s. As soon the economic blockade in Manipur settles, they plan to build her a shop from which she can earn her living and support her children.
“We are slowly changing our strategy,” he says pointing to the fact that the group can now go beyond providing just necessities to keep these families afloat to start thinking of permanent solutions that can sustain a livelihood. Apart from pooling in funds from their own pockets, these Young Guardians of Manipur are continuing to crowdsource funds so they can not only reach more people but also pull them out of poverty for good.