The Youth Volunteers Union is well known all over Manipur for their work in fostering livelihoods, and behind their inspiring work is the story of one man’s vision. Dhruva Balram explores further.
Tikendrajit Akoijam has a number of visits to conduct today. An employee of the dairy division of his company accompanies him, along with a driver who doubles as security, a security guard who doubles as a handyman, and myself, a Milaap Fellow.
Along the way, soldiers stop us for a routine check, because we’re in one of the most volatile areas of insurgency activity in Manipur. They ask the five of us to step outside the car as they search the interior. Tiken, seated in the passenger seat, is used to this. He calmly explains to them who he is, how we’re headed to a village, and even cracks a few jokes in the meantime.
The soldier recognises the name of Tiken’s company and instantly perks up.
He may be from Tamil Nadu, but having lived in Manipur for army duty, he’s bought Youth Volunteers’ Union’s (YVU) milk and heard about the good work they do all over the state.
Tiken founded YVU after high school in 1972. He was selected for an engineering degree by the state government, but his father didn’t have enough money to send him out of state. Instead, his father wished for Tiken to get a government job. But Tiken persevered with his intention of working somewhere that would do some actual good for the Manipuri people.
“I didn’t want to work for the government,” he reminisces. “My father was very angry with my decision. But when he saw YVU’s work, he was very happy. He even gave me Rs. 325, which went a long way in those days.”
YVU’s story is Tiken’s story, and it epitomises its founder and his intentions. “Once, when we returned home from school, neighbouring villages were flooded. I asked some of my school friends to help me, and they agreed.” Tiken and his friends, the self-professed Youth Volunteers Union, made arrangements for the people to stay. Every evening they gathered, and with no money, started doing simple social work like cleaning the markets, adult literacy programmes, and dredging waste from ponds.
“Every evening, 10 of us went to different villages to teach. We wanted to ensure that they could at least write their name in English and Manipuri,” says Tiken.
He started a local library in Thoubal district, where the current head office of the company is based. The library received books from dozens of bookstores across India, ones he had previously written to. He organised inter-village games, from sub-divisional level to state-level games. As the work they did grew, so did the company.
YVU organises a three-day festival every year with sports, cultural events, and music programmes.
After nearly 10 years of running YVU with no income or profit, Tiken finally received a grant of Rs. 45,000 from the social welfare board.
After nearly a decade of helping out people from various locations, Tiken and his crew finally had a piece of land for their operations. They leased a piece of land for 20 years, and started providing training for rural women. They purchased materials and equipment from Guwahati. The women were employed in the profession that they were trained in. But with no support after that initial grant, Tiken and his band of volunteers were finding it hard to keep YVU alive.
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Tiken remembers, “I wrote about 1,000 letters to different organisations. Then, all our plans were cut off because of the floods in 1980.” EZE (Evangelische Zentralstelle für Entwicklungshilfe), an evangelical Germany-based development association, had shown interest around that time. But with the floods, their planned visit was cancelled, and all the hopes Tiken had for the future seemed to dissolve away.
He wasn’t disheartened though, and kept writing letters. Eventually, EZE responded, and asked Tiken to write a proposal. “I told them that I did not know how to write a proposal. At the time, I couldn’t even speak fluent English. How was I to write a proposal?”
In a serendipitous turn of events, the EZE employee who came to visit Tiken wrote the proposal for him. This allowed YVU to have its first foreign-backed project—a training centre for rural women.
The success of the initial project was so great that they struck up a contract for 22 years, 10 years more than their normal contract with NGOs. From 1980 to 2002, YVU and EZE worked together to help the poor in Manipur in a variety of ways.
They collaborated on creating the first micro-finance company in North-East India.
In 1993, EZE sent him to London for an entrepreneur training program at Oxford University. He managed to make connections for further funding while there. Back home, initially, he gave away grants to the local people for expanding their businesses. When he returned to check on them, he saw that the money was squandered away.
With no liability on their part, the locals found that they could take advantage of Tiken. YVU installed hand pumps for water all over Manipur, but when Tiken returned to check on them, he noticed that most were broken. The locals had figured it was YVU’s problem, not theirs.
“I had no idea what micro-finance was before London. Even afterwards, it was hard to implement it in this society,” Tiken says.
Finally, in 1996, Tiken struck upon the idea of repayment and loan schemes. On October 2, 1996, Tiken’s friend and his wife signed on scrap pieces of paper to give the initial funding for YMF. Along with Rs. 2.5 lakhs from EZE, YVU started YMF, the micro-finance division of the company. 20 years later, YMF operates in two states, with plans to expand further. They have a 100 % repayment rate, and have helped thousands of women fruitfully expand their businesses. Their mission is simple, clear, and it’s working—alleviate poverty in the impoverished.
Today, 42 years after Tiken and his friends decided on a whim to help out neighbouring villages, YVU operates in three states in northeast India. His son is the managing director, his oldest daughter also works for the company, and his youngest daughter is set to join after graduating. They’re truly a local, family-based company. Their growth and scope are nationally renowned, and his name is the first to be spoken when companies think about investing in Manipur.
Tiken has received awards for founding YVU, but that hasn’t stopped him from being connected to the people he started helping decades ago. On our visit to the farms, he knows each of the farmers by name, and asks about their family. They sit around joking and chatting, and he greets each of them like old friends and brothers, “They are my kin. They are also Manipuri. If I can help them, why don’t I?”
(The author is a Milaap Fellow based in Thoubal, Manipur, working with Milaap’s field partner Youth Volunteers Union.)
Find out more about YVU, their activities, and how you can contribute, on their website.