- Hasina Kharbhih’s Impulse NGO Network has used an innovative model to rescue 72,000 women and children trafficked across India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.
- Her innovative model partners with human rights organizations and governments across Asia and Europe, and stands out for its emphasis on financial compensations and repatriation.
Ella Sangma was in her early teens and living in a shelter in New Delhi when the authorities told her someone was coming to take her back to northeast India. “I was doubtful; I had been taken for a ride earlier,” says Sangma, who was sold by her mother to human traffickers as a child and brought to the Indian capital, where she was forced to keep the books at a liquor store connected to a brothel.
But there was something about Hasina Kharbhih that earned the teen’s instant trust. Sangma, who now calls Kharbhih Amma (mother), agreed to return to northeast India with her. Sangma is just one among the more than 72,000 women and children who have been victims of human trafficking across India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal and now find themselves free thanks to Kharbhih.
For Kharbhih, 49, it’s a matter of empathy as she strives to put a dent in the $32 billion human trafficking industry in India and its surrounding countries. When I arrive at a British-era building in Shillong in the northeast Indian hill state of Meghalaya, Kharbhih — wearing a traditional wraparound skirt and her hair in a bun — welcomes me into her office library.
Children were being taken away by recruiters who promised them better-paying jobs and put them into forced labor as domestic maids, tea stall helpers, miners or sex slaves.
Kharbhih was just a schoolgirl in Shillong when she started supporting the social development of vulnerable communities in the northeast. The area is rife with human trafficking due to its porous borders with Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh; rampant poverty; and clashes between locals and the Indian military. During the 1971 war that resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, Kharbhih’s father housed refugees in their farmhouse.
“I was born the year these people got to go back, but the stories remain etched in my brain,” Kharbhih says. “He did that as a human being and not a social worker — and maybe that got into me. I understood what you can do for human beings.”
While in school, she started cooking and cleaning at retirement homes and orphanages. That early volunteer work became the Impulse NGO Network. Kharbhih decided to go to a college with stacked early-morning classes, which gave her more time for social work than a social life. By 1993, Impulse was registered as a rural livelihood initiative for female artisans in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya.
The initiative’s focus shifted after a 1996 Supreme Court of India order banning the felling of trees in the northeast. While conservationists celebrated, the ruling came as a devastating blow for many female artisans — including those adjacent to the village where Kharbhih’s grandmother lived — who depended on access to bamboo and cane for their weaving.
“The forest resources ban forced the rural communities to seek employment in urban areas, and that eventually led many to become victims of human trafficking,” Kharbhih says in her trademark soft, calm voice. “We found that children were being taken away by recruiters who promised them better-paying jobs and put them into forced labor as domestic maids, tea stall helpers, miners or sex slaves.”
She reoriented the organization to tackle the spiraling problem. In 2000, Impulse took on its first human trafficking case after Prerana, a Mumbai-based nongovernmental organization, rescued three northeastern girls from a red-light district in the city.
Impulse’s immediate challenge was how to work with the government. And for that, it needed a plan of action. That turned out to be what is now called the Meghalaya Model, or the Impulse Model. The trafficking tracking system focuses on the six R’s (reporting, rescue, rehabilitation, repatriation, reintegration and restitution) and the six P’s (partnership, prevention, protection, policing, press and prosecution).
Karbhih’s tracking center works with 1,000 nongovernmental organizations and governmental departments across South and Southeast Asia and has been endorsed by the United Kingdom. Anyone can report a case to the Impulse Case Info Centre (ICIC), which quickly connects local authorities and NGOs.
Once a rescue operation is carried out, ICIC collaborates with social welfare departments and NGOs to provide shelter, medical care and a long-term plan. whether that’s vocational training or returning the person home. And they follow up to make sure trafficking survivors receive financial compensation.
Ajailiu Niumai, a professor of sociology at the University of Hyderabad who researches human trafficking in northeast India, believes that what makes Kharbhih’s model different from others across India are the components of repatriation and financial compensation. “Besides,” Niumai adds, “Impulse has been able to take their model to the global platform by connecting with the organizations across South Asia and also Europe.”
But Niumai also points out that there are regional factors at play. “What is possible in the hills of the northeast is actually more difficult in the urban regions of, for example, south India,” she says. “Here, down south, families are not willing to take back trafficked victims. So there are a lot more cases of re-trafficking.”
The best thing about Kharbhih, Sangma tells me, is the way she listens to survivors and incorporates feedback to evolve the system. When Sangma became the only survivor to testify in court against a human trafficker, Kharbhih was always with her, flying back and forth between Meghalaya and New Delhi.
Sangma emerged from the courtroom to find Kharbhih, and had a simple request for her Amma — to run away. So the pair did just that, running miles and miles through the streets of Delhi, in the hopes that, even if just for a moment, Sangma could feel safe.