Good Businesses 2014

Preserving the fabric

Impulse Social Enterprises is ensuring sustainable livelihoods in the northeast

Photographs by Biju Boro

It takes us just under seven hours to cover the 250-odd-km rocky, hilly, busy route between Shillong, Meghalaya and Panbari village in Golaghat district, Assam. At the end of the backbreaking journey lies the home of master artisan Rekha Doley, not very far from the tourist-friendly Kaziranga National Park. Doley’s home is a picture of idyllic rural life, complete with a set of excited farm animals, a changhar or stilt house common in inundated Assamese villages and a khal or lion loom — so called for the teeth that draw the yarn in — occupying pride of place on the porch of the thatched mud and bamboo structure. Doley, who used the loom to stitch her own and her family’s clothes for years, now uses it to make multi-purpose scarves and other fabrics for the Shillong-based Impulse Social Enterprises (ISE), thereby supplementing her husband’s schoolteacher income and supporting a family of 11. “It wasn’t possible for me to travel for work, so I’m happy I can earn at home thanks to Impulse. I love learning new patterns and travelling with other weavers for training to the city,” she smiles. 

Started by Shillong resident Hasina Kharbhih (43) in December 2010 with an initial investment of ₹10 lakh, ISE works to prevent unsafe migration and human trafficking by providing communities in northeast India a livelihood in their own neighbourhood. The Fulbright scholar and Ashoka and Aspen fellow first started the Impulse NGO Network fresh out of high school in the early 1990s to market Meghalaya’s rich tribal handicrafts. Beginning with her ancestral village of Syntein in the east Khasi hills, in the middle of the now-famous Mawsymram district, Kharbhih started searching for ways to push consumption beyond the weak local demand. She began marketing the prototypical textile, bamboo, cane and silk articles made by her network of artisans through her eldest brother’s fruit and spice export firm Sen Kharbhih, dealing with foreign buyers as well as brands such as Fabindia. 

Though she received support from the government for skilling workshops and the like, the administrative and financial drawbacks of working with government funding agencies began to take a toll. The death knell was sounded by the Supreme Court’s blanket ban in 1996 on cutting down of timber, which hit the northeast the hardest. “Timber is one of the

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