Hasina Kharbhih founded the Impulse NGO Network (INGON) in 1993 with a mission to address livelihood issues for vulnerable communities in the north-eastern States of India. Along with like-minded peers, she discovered that human trafficking for sexual exploitation was a scourge in the region. Over the past three decades, the network has rescued and rehabilitated approximately 70,000 women and girls from the north-eastern region. She spoke to Frontline about displacement, and the worry of human trafficking raising its ugly head in the context of the ongoing crisis in Manipur.
Kharbhih’s Impulse Model is recognised globally for its strength and effectiveness in subverting exploitation of vulnerable communities. Kharbhih’s experience provides her with deep knowledge on what is called unseen migration, which arises out of several needs, conflict being one. Her team continues to work relentlessly on developing solutions that are organic to the region, such as encouraging locals to engage migrants in agriculture. She says instead of looking at refugees as a burden, look at them as a resource.
With conflict comes massive displacement and unsafe migration. You have worked in the north east on this issue for over 25 years. Your observations on the current Manipur situation?
The violence has gone on for two months, and what struck me is how fast it spread. Ethnic conflict is not new to the north-eastern region. The region has had its fair share of conflicts for decades and most of us have grown up experiencing this internal conflict— conflict among tribes, between tribals and non-tribals. In fact, there is always some issue with the ethnic minorities in Manipur specifically. But in this case the speed at which it escalated—people could not grasp the situation.
A lot of information has come out on what triggered the present violence. But to understand the flare up, we have to go deeper. I believe Schedule Tribe status for Meiteis should have been more consultative to avoid violence and conflict. In these situations, we see people take advantage of the anger, the frustration, and the political dynamics.
However, if you do not hear so much about internal conflicts in the north-eastern region it is because the local populace has ways of controlling it successfully. In fact, as someone who has 35 years of experience working for economic upliftment in the region, I now see the younger generation that sees things in a different perspective. They seem to want to make changes in a peaceful way.
The present internal displacement is massive. One of the biggest we have witnessed in recent times. Almost 24,000 have fled for their lives.
The Impulse Model has been working on unsafe migration caused by displacement and its challenges in five countries, many of them India’s neighbours. Could you speak about this.
Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland share a long border with Myanmar. The civil unrest in Myanmar has caused tremendous migration into India. It’s a natural process. When people are looking for safety, they move. The Burmese and the people from the north-eastern region are culturally very similar. The tribes are very much aligned. Some have families on both sides. The north-eastern States have welcomed people in times of crisis for years.
However, when you have cross-border displacement the economic resources of the host reduces and that is a major cause of the conflict. The breakdown in Manipur, however, brought additional internal conflict because there is already internal and cross-border displacement, and the complexities of the Kukis tribes, who are originally from Myanmar.
When internal or external displacement takes place, women and girls are the worst affected. As we work in these areas, we have ample research to show how the weakest become vulnerable to human trafficking during displacement. In the context of Manipur, again, women and girls will face the brunt of the violence.
You have spoken about deforestation in connection with displacement and migration. Could you expand.
Deforestation is a by-product of displacement. It comes from people looking for food. Food security becomes the most important element to help them get through the crisis.
We observed during our work that to analyse how cross-border migration takes place, you need to study the forest growth and deforestation. The government faces a huge challenge of preserving the forests because of displacement from across the border.
We thought through the Impulse Model: what about getting the host community to use barren lands along with the displaced people towards achieving food security? We expanded the Impulse Model Prevention and innovated the process of Refugees as Ambassadors to Climate Change.
We got the host community and displaced people to come together for farming multiple crops and agroforestry as a way forward to have a sustainable process towards food security. Additionally, we encouraged preserving indigenous seeds and foods while doing this. It helped that the displaced peoples’ cultural sensibilities were similar.
Essentially, our mission was to capitalise barren land, as it would harmonise the community, and at the same time attempt to preventing human trafficking.
What would you say about the situation today? Kamathipura still exists, the north eastern region is still vulnerable.
Human trafficking has changed in the past 25 years. When we did interventions before, it was more brothel-based. I know that Kamathipura (Mumbai), GB road (Delhi), Sonagachi (Kolkata) still exist. But the trend of human trafficking has changed. Employment recruiting agencies have become the predators. They prey on young women who have aspirations of moving out for a better life.
There is now a cross-border element with women and girls from the region moving to South-East Asia. In the last six to seven years, we have seen another trend emerge and that is online. COVID saw people losing jobs which then resulted in many falling into the flesh trade. Additionally, pornography shot up during COVID. The vulnerability of youngsters online became a challenge for those working against human trafficking. Then there are the marriages of the Rohingyas from Bangladesh and Kashmiri men.
Your latest work is with climate refugees. Could you give some context to this.
There are so many lenses from which the world views climate change. When I look at climate as a natural disaster and people moving from location to location because of this, I wonder how to resolve this alarming situation.
The north-eastern forests have become endangered due to climate change and human destruction. That is when we thought about how displaced people of Myanmar can contribute to the region. They can be climate change ambassadors. They can contribute to a larger system of creating food security.
Instead of looking at refugees as a burden, look at them as a resource. I believe that farming can bring communities to look at how they can work together. Using the natural effort of securing their own food can make them more productive human beings. That is when the multiple cropping initiative came up. It’s been on for two years and we have seen massive success. In the Manipur situation, our people working on the ground say the Kukis and Meiteis have worked together to help displaced people. Making the land productive, cultivation can be a huge tool to solve displacement.