Anshu Gupta believes that clothes are not just a defence against climatic odds but also a means to uplift the lives of the less fortunate amongst us. The company recently made it to the Fast Company List of Top 10 Innovations from India, thanks to its idea of routing urban excesses to poor households in the country
When the tsunami (2004) hit the Tamil Nadu coastal line, there was a rush to help the victims who had been rendered homeless. Old clothes were collected in great numbers, but unfortunately, few of these found takers as they were regarded as discards.
Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, a New Delhi-based not-for-profit organisation working with the underprivileged in rural India and an Ashoka Fellow, says that one should donate clothes that are appropriate especially during a disaster as those affected have minimum storage and the clothes must be climatically and culturally suited.
As a freelance journalist, he once interviewed a man whose only occupation was to cremate abandoned orphaned dead bodies. That interview revealed to Gupta how hard winters can be on those below the poverty line as death rates increase at that time. This man’s daughter told Gupta that sometimes she would hug a corpse when sleeping at night to keep herself warm.
Touched by this poignant story, Gupta decided to channelise clothes to this section of society. He started Goonj in 1998. “Goonj is not just an organisation, nor are clothes just a product. Both are tools for change,” he stresses. According to Gupta, clothes give a sense of dignity to the wearer and that is something he wants to bring to the rural societies. “We talk of food, clothing and shelter, but somehow, except during natural disasters, we forget about clothes altogether,” he points out.
Every small step counts
The next question he asks is, “When women do not have proper clothes to wear, what do they do during their menstrual cycle?” He was horrified to see women sharing rag clothes not just within families but also even with neighbours if the cycle times were different. Some even used sand and ash. One lady died of tetanus because the blouse she used had a hook that infected her insides.
The subject of a menstrual cycle is taboo in our society, but Goonj was one of the earliest to create awareness and make sanitary pads from the clothes they got. “The best maintained clothes are given as a reward for undertaking development activity in a village,” says Gupta, who treats clothes as an alternative currency. The clothes that cannot be used directly are recycled to create a variety of products such as bags, underwear and sanitary pads. The idea is to understand the needs of the people and fulfil them accordingly. This way, activities such as building bamboo bridges, digging wells, cleaning ponds, repairing roads, building schools and other related work that affects the local community is undertaken. “We work through grassroots organisations, with the villages, mobilise people to undertake the projects and reward them with products that they can use,” explains Gupta.
Under its ‘School to School’ programme, Goonj reaches basic school materials such as pencil boxes, notebooks and other stationery to school children as a reward for behavioural changes like better attendance at school, cleanliness and better personal hygiene. For this, Goonj works with private schools in urban areas and channelises their underutilised material.
Goonj also involves urban and rural women in making quilts called sujni, out of last shreds of cloth. This not only helps generate employment but has also, over the years, emerged as a better option to blankets as this can be used in summers as well. While sanitary pad manufacturing is centralised in New Delhi due to the need for hygiene, quilts are done at the centres where the local women retain what they need and sell the excess. At Anandavan, Maharashtra, the sanitary pad production model has been replicated.
Furthering the cause
Goonj currently has 11 centres across the country and wants to stop with 12 and 200 people at the most. For Gupta, the aim is to spread more as an idea and as a people’s movement, so that many others replicate this model. He currently has 180 people working full-time with him, most of them below the age of 30. Of this, around 40 comprise the core operations team and the remaining 140 (of which nearly 120 are women) are into processing. They have been trained to sort through the materials they collect and segregate.
“The sorting is an important process because we want to match the material closely with the needs of the receiver. Also the sorting helps us take out the unwearable clothes and unusable material,” says Gupta.
The second challenge Goonj faces is in the fact that there are parallel organisations working in rural areas, giving away freebies from groceries to laptops. So its proposition to use second-hand clothes as an incentive is more than a challenge. Yet this has not deterred Gupta and his partners. Surprisingly, it has also worked because what the underprivileged get in return for work is relevant to their needs and hence valuable. “Even MGNRES (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) employs people for 100 days only. The poor are unemployed for the rest of the year, and they can see the value in the kind of payment we make,” Gupta points out. Which is why Goonj often finds villagers asking for new schemes of development. Both ways, the villagers benefit – as the development project is also to make their life easier.
Like many other places at Khandwa and Mandala, Madhya Pradesh, Goonj’s initiative started in a small way with the digging of a well. Now, a series of initiatives have been taken up and it is an inspiration for the neighbouring villages to follow suit as well.
Under its Rahat disaster work, Goonj has been working on reaching relief to disaster zones from Tamil Nadu to Ladakh. More recently, Goonj continues its post disaster relief and rehabilitation work after the Uttarakhand floods.
And for all its work, Goonj was recently listed on Fast Company Magazine’s Top 10 Innovative Companies from India. The magazine said: “Goonj is a game-changer, teaching urban Indians when, what, and how to give.” It certainly does and its 1500-odd projects executes till date are a case in point.
Gupta shares with us some critical observations from his experience with Goonj:
Post disasters, people lose their homes and even a second set of clothing is a burden on the survivor due to lack of storage space
The sufferer during disasters is someone who has lost what little he/she had, more than he/she who had nothing to lose. So badly maintained clothing is more an insult than a help
It is a good idea to give even where is no disaster. It can make a huge difference
Founder: Anshu Gupta
Focus: Clothes and derived products as alternative currency for development of communities
It is possible to assess the quantitative impact, but every time Goonj received an award, it was because people could see the difference it was making, Gupta points out. To revive and sustain the culture of giving even during non-disaster times is the first great achievement of Goonj, according to Gupta. More importantly, bringing menstrual hygiene into the public domain in 2004 for the first time has helped many women become aware and opt for hygienic methods of protecting themselves. Thirdly, the worldview of old material is changing. With its 15 year-long work, Goonj has proven that it can be used as an alternative currency and it can help the needy in a meaningful way.
Gupta also wants the corporates to introspect about their CSR culture of ‘adopting villages’ and counting hand pumps as achievements. “I think it is important to understand the multiple interconnected issues of rural India, as also to give value to the dignity, self-respect and age old wisdom of the India which lives in our villages,” Gupta insists.
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