This description of Yambem Laba's work was prepared when Yambem Laba was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1987.
Yambem Laba is mobilizing the youths of poor and neglected Manipur for community and environment projects.
The New Idea
Yambem Laba has transformed the once elite activity of trekking into a program which teaches youth from all social strata about environmental and ecological issues, while performing the much-needed voluntary work of reforestation and slowing the degradation of the Indian environment. At the same time, the program Laba founded, which operates under the supervision of Manipur Mountaineering Institute (MMT), focuses on developing the participants' courage, endurance, sense of fraternity, and personal excellence. The main objective of Laba's activities is to harness and channel the energy of Manipur youths to useful and productive endeavors. Laba seeks to help the youths to realize their potentials, to extend their limits, to grow up concerned about their environment and socio-economic realities and to be ready to do something to improve the current situation.
Manipur did not become an Indian state until 1972. In its long history of neglect and exploitation by the central government, the destiny of the locals had been placed under a handful of bureaucrats who saw Manipur as punishment posting. By 1972, substantial damage had been done. With no appropriate economic infrastructure conducive to development, the situation remains more or less the same, to date. The lack of economic opportunities has turned a generation of Manipur youths to drugs. In addition, government neglect results in environmental destruction while the practice of burning patches of forest for cultivation by the local tribals has led to serious deforestation.
To tap the power of Manipur youths, Laba organizes Adventure Courses and Trekking Expeditions that are designed to raise the youths' awareness as well as to give them a sense of meaningful direction by working with the tribals. Several month-long, 100-youth treks take place each year. They serve as a medium for reducing inter-class and caste tensions, emphasizing the integration of youths from peasant and lower-class backgrounds with middle class youths. As the trekkers learn about their environment, they also contribute to its development by cooperating with tribal villagers in planting crops and trees, and cleaning up rivers and slum areas. Another aspect of their of their public service function is explaining, in layman's terms, the environmental concerns which affect the villagers. For example, the groups have met with tribal chiefs and villagers to discuss the relationship between deforestation and floods and droughts. Laba has been able to provide a ready stock of 3500 man days for his courses. By working in the tribal villages, Laba's students are able to mobilize the tribal youths to work alongside on various schemes. So far the three wings of Laba's Manipur Mountaineering Institute have been extremely successful. The Training Wing has been running the courses with respectable rigor. The Training Wing shapes and orients the minds of the youths towards community and social work. As the Rural Development and Environment Wings work out detailed plans about what should be done, trained youths provide the workforce to then move in and execute the projects. The dual purpose of the MMT expeditions is a clear example of how individuals can involve themselves personally in the environmental and ecological issues concerning their communities and the whole of India. By giving the youths hands on experience in developing their own country, whole communities are served and educated.
Yambem Laba is an experienced outdoor person who has served as Guest Instructor for Adventure Courses conducted by The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. He was a teacher for a while after college; however, it soon became clear to him that he would rather be educating the sons of Indian peasants than polishing up the "cousins of the King of Bhutan". As a sincere and committed champion of social changes, Laba hopes to awaken the consciousness of today's youths, knowing they will be tomorrow's leaders.