Anshu Gupta of ‘Goonj’ has taken up the mission to clothe poor India; one man’s waste is recycled into another man’s object of need By Supriya Batra
In today’s urban world, buying clothes is a part of everyday life. A visit to the market is incomplete if one comes back empty handed, even if that means unnecessarily spending just for the sake of keeping up with changing fashion and trends. Our modern society of excess is lost in a sea of brands, choice and plenitude. Given to such indulgence, seldom does one realise that in a parallel world, there exist millions of people who have no access to basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing. While charities, ranging from the local neighbourhood organisation to the United Nations umbrella organisations, have tried to address the first two necessities, clothing, till date, remains an unaddressed developmental subject. The urgency of donating clothes to the poor arrives mostly at the time of a natural calamity or a disaster. Unfortunately, there are countless millions in India who still struggle to meet this basic need that many take for granted.
This is where Anshu Gupta, a corporate manager in 1998, decided to intervene. Today, Goonj, the volunteer-run organisation that he founded in New Delhi, provides clothes and other basic amenities to millions across India by turning one person’s waste into a resource for another. Gupta, the founder-director of Goonj, started his mission with just 67 pieces of clothing in 1998. A passionate photographer and an amateur writer, he has set an example for young entrepreneurs across the nation by bringing Goonj in the list of India’s top ten NGOs. Goonj (which means ‘echo’ in Hindi) is the first-of-its-kind organisation to address the problem of clothing as a developmental issue.
The impact of Goonj now reverberates across 21 states of India with over 1,000 tonnes of material being processed every year. His model of rural development – a parallel economy which is not based on currency and runs on trash rather than cash – is unique and recognised worldwide. An Ashoka Fellow, Anshu is creating a mass movement for recycling and reusing of tonnes of waste material by channelling it from the cities to the villages.
It is never a single incident or an event that becomes the sole reason for someone to take up a cause. Anshu Gupta also has an interesting story to tell. He says, “All of us are into a certain kind of escapism. We think someone else will fix our problems. We often underestimate our responsibility and capability. We have to take ownership for our problems. When you can do brilliant work in your professional career or family life, why not do a bit for the society? Why don’t you become a part of it?” This journey of ‘clothing with dignity- from donors pride to receiver’s dignity’ did not just happen by chance. He believes that a series of events which shocked or disturbed him during his college days kept on piling up somewhere within his subconscious and ultimately led him to act.
His insights emerged from an early brush with the chaos of a natural disaster. It was in the year 1991 that an earthquake had struck Uttarkashi in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand in northern India. Gupta, a postgraduate student then, travelled through the area to witness the rescue operations out of sheer curiosity. He encountered an old man who kept on repeating, “Ek kambal chaiye mujhey..kuch garam kapra de do..mai mar jaunga… (I need a blanket, give me woollen clothes, I will die).” The man, wearing a tattered jacket made of old jute sacks, kept on shivering but Gupta had nothing to give him. He was just a student of journalism who had bunked classes to get a first-hand experience of such a natural calamity.
Gupta recalls, “To be honest, at that moment I didn’t even understand his insistence on a woollen pullover or a blanket instead of food or shelter though all I saw were damaged houses all across. A few hours later, as I found some space to sleep under a plastic sheet, I understood his desperation. Even today I shiver, remembering that cold night! ”
For people affected by the disaster there was no access to food, shelter or clothing. There is a general belief that people affected by a natural disaster need clothing and thus donations came pouring in. But Gupta noticed piles of clothes lying on the streets, untouched and unused. Clothing donation is the norm during a natural disaster but people seldom consider as to where the disaster-stricken people will keep their stuff when they don’t even have a home to go to. The challenge lies in allocating appropriate resources to the affected people and not just in random donations. In Uttarkashi, Gupta saw villagers reject bundles of clothes that were literally thrown at them out of trucks; many chose to dress in jute sacks rather than suffer the indignity.
Another incident which had a deep impact was his encounter with one man named Habib in Delhi. Years ago, when Gupta was pursuing his post-graduate journalism diploma course at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), he did a story on Habib. Informally used by the Delhi Police, Habib used to pick up unclaimed dead bodies from the city’s roads. His work was primarily to take these bodies from the roads to the electric crematorium. While interacting and spending time with him, two statements from him and his little daughter shook Anshu completely. First, when Habib told Gupta: “In winters my business goes up” which meant more deaths on the roads. And the second came from his four-and-a-half-years-old daughter, who very innocently told Gupta, “When I feel cold at night, I just tightly hug the dead body on that rickshaw and sleep with it. It doesn’t trouble me, it doesn’t turn around.” This encounter with Habib and the conversation with his daughter made him realise two basic things. One, that it is not just during a disaster that people need clothes. And two, that the number of deaths during winter increases in northern India (almost four times than in summer) for the lack of proper clothing.
These are a few of the many disturbing images and experiences which compelled Gupta to leave his corporate communication job at Escorts in 1998 to start working on his dream. Somewhere these encounters became the points of genesis of Goonj in a world where clothing as a basic need is still not acknowledged. Gupta’s longing to give back to the society, especially to the poor without compromising on their dignity is what summarises Goonj.
It is never easy to give up a full-fledged job and start a new venture. The fact that he had no inherited fortune and that Meenakshi, his wife, would become the single earning member was definitely not an idea liked by other family members and friends. But he was firm on his decision and with support from his wife, also an IIMC post-graduate, the couple overcame the challenges which came their way.
Born in Meerut in 1970 to S.D.Gupta, a civilian employee of the armed forces, and Kusum Gupta, Anshu Gupta hails from a middle class family. His upbringing taught him the relevance of making the most of every bit of resource. Alongside a diploma in English Journalism and one in Advertising and Public Relations from IIMC, New Delhi, he also holds a Masters degree in Economics.
A visit to the Goonj workshop in Madanpur Khaddar village of New Delhi, one gathers that the staff, mainly women of village, make use of just about everything they get. The centre repairs saris and woollens, which are the most in demand, adds drawstrings to pantsuits, turns tattered or oversized jeans into schoolbags, fills quilts with cloth scraps, etc.
One of the most important projects undertaken by Goonj is “NJPC: Not Just a Piece of Cloth”. It is about producing affordable sanitary napkins for women in rural India. “In India, menstruation is a very sensitive issue and is not talked about at all. Many women use dirty pieces of cloth which is extremely unhygienic,” says Gupta.
“Because hand pumps are in public places, they hesitate to wash them because it is sort of a taboo. Sometimes two or three women in a household with different cycles will share a cloth. People use sand, ash, jute bags, dry leaves and grass, anything that can absorb the blood. Many have fallen victim to fatal infections but such is the desperation of poor people,” says Gupta. Goonj washes and sun dries cotton cloth and sheets, turns them into cloth sanitary pads called MY Pads, and distributes them, or sells them for a few rupees, in packs of five as sanitary pads. This project is being supported by World Bank.
The founder director takes pains to ensure that the materials actually reach the intended beneficiaries, no small feat in a country where corruption is endemic. They carefully vet NGO partners and do follow-up visits. If that is impossible, Goonj insists that photographs be taken to show the goods have been distributed. They have a network of trusted locations for truck storage. “It’s a tough game to deal with local police and government officials and tax officers. But we have a zero bribe policy”, adds Gupta.
Goonj has found a way to assist villagers that seeks to go beyond charity through its flagship programme called “Cloth for Work” — which links clothes to self-organised development activities in villages. They propose a development activity like building a bridge, repairing a road, digging a well, building a school, etc. In exchange, each labourer receives a family pack – a kind of currency in cloth: two full outfits for four people, in all roughly 600 Indian Rupees ($10) worth of clothes.
For instance, in a village called Sukhasan, in Bihar, where a bridge had been washed away years ago, villagers in 2009 organised to build a 240-by- 6-feet bamboo bridge. “People had been walking 10 kilometers to get to the other side,” recalls Gupta. A hundred people contributed bamboo and a few days of labour. Goonj supplied nails and wire. The whole cost came up to a mere 3,000 Indian Rupees ($50). “It impacted the mind-set of the people,” Gupta says. The community later reorganised to press the government to improve the bridge so that motorcycles could cross. Now there is a bridge made of concrete. Over the past two years, Goonj has supported hundreds of similar Cloth for Work campaigns.
‘School to School’ is another unique Goonj project to address the problem faced by millions of schoolchildren in remote village schools. Most of these lack infrastructure and basic facilities, critical for a child to be properly educated. This initiative also reaches out to slum schools in which under-utilised materials of the cities’ affluent schools are distributed. While connecting the two extreme ends of the society, it opens a space of interaction between the two as well. Without burdening anyone, ‘School to School’ makes this interaction cost-effective and helps children understand the importance of sharing and caring. The idea is to motivate urban school kids to contribute the material that they are not using anymore, as every year most children buy a new set of uniforms, copies, stationeries, water bottles, shoes, lunch boxes, etc. when they move on to the next class. The urban children, parents and school authorities are sensitised about the needs of their less fortunate counterparts. Materials like old books, uniforms, shoes, school bags, etc. are channelled to thousands of village children, motivating them to learn. These items are not given as a token of charity but as a reward after regular monitoring on a series of behavioural, attitudinal and performance aspects. Goonj is also passionate about reuse of discarded photocopy pages. These invariably have a blank side which Goonj converts into usable stationery.
Recognised by NASA for ‘Game Changing Innovation’ and a recipient of the Global Development Market Place Award from World Bank as well as the Real Heroes Award by CNN-IBN, Gupta believes that “change is limited when the masses underestimate their own potential.”Today, apart from clothes, Goonj’s collection include things like shoes, toys, books, electronic gadgets, stationeries, furniture, medicines, utensils and other urban waste. Contributed materials are divided according to gender, age, size and other demographic and geographic needs. From collecting clothes in 1998 from his own house, relatives and friends and distributing them on the roads in Delhi during winters, his dream has indeed come a long way. For Gupta, Goonj is not just an organisation bridging urban India’s underutilised resources and rural India’s unaddressed needs. Rather, it’s an idea, a movement, a platform to talk, change, express and do.