When the beautiful Dal Lake of Jammu and Kashmir choked under an overgrowth of fern and weeds, Goonj—an Indian NGO that trades donated clothes for community work—stepped in with an offer the locals couldn’t refuse.
Goonj’s “Cloth for Work” initiative motivated hundreds of Kashmiri men to get together with more than 150 boats and rid a part of the lake of weeds and waste, thus breathing life into one of the most beautiful water-bodies in India in exchange for clothes and other material collected from across the world. Its idea of motivating rural communities to resolve their own problems—by building bridges, cleaning lakes and digging wells—to access urban donations earned its founder the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2015.
“My wife is the backbone of Goonj,” says Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, which also engages in humanitarian work and rehabilitation of communities affected by natural calamities. “Meenakshi earned for us while I struggled to establish Goonj. She hates the limelight but without her, Goonj wouldn’t be possible,” he says. Gupta was speaking at an event in Singapore where he talked about his organisation, goals and challenges.
In his late thirties, Gupta’s foray into social service began early in life as a student exploring earthquake scenarios in North India. “I saw this old man in the biting cold with a jacket made from a jute sack, crying for help,” Gupta says. “He wasn’t asking for food; he was asking for clothes.” Gupta says he was shattered when—as a young journalist—he spent a day with a family that collected dead bodies from the streets for a living.
“The chill left many homeless people dead on the streets. The family picked up these bodies and gave it to the local morgue for a few rupees,” he explains. A young girl—the daughter of the couple—had told him that she hugged the lifeless bodies of people when the nights became unbearably cold. “The dead don’t bother me; they never turn in their sleep,” she told Gupta, who had listened to her, unable to register her comment.
Gupta soon realized that the poor are victims of both hunger and the weather. “Many people give old clothes, but they don’t always fit those who need them,” says Gupta. Besides, those in villages tend to dress more conservatively. “Jeans and tops are just not going to help.” He also said that few Indians realize how important it is for people to have clothes to survive, especially in the winters. “No one thought about making clothes accessible to those who do not have them,” he says.
In 1999, Anshu left his job in the corporate world to start a non-profit organization, which supplies urban underutilized materials to rural areas. With over 500 team members, Goonj—meaning Echo in Hindi—collects and channelises tonnes of urban materials in exchange for rural developmental efforts and has become a game changer in the field of charity work in India. Hundreds of volunteers—including schools, colleges, housewives, professional institutions, exporters, hotels and hospitals—contribute to Goonj’s work in recycling and distribution centres to send over 3000 tons of recycled waste every month to parts of 21 states across the country.
Gupta identified the growing gap between the urban rich and the rural poor, and used Goonj as a catalyst for rural development. What he is better known for is transforming the way we look at charity or the act of giving. “Don’t we always tell our children to politely decline anything that’s offered to them?” he asks. “Charity destroys self-respect. I wanted the rural folk to better their own living conditions by working hard, not through donations.” Gupta has—on his organisation’s website—stressed very clearly his distaste for conventional charity:
I think the biggest asset of rural people is their self-respect and dignity. Beggars are not found in villages. Begging is a city phenomenon; why do we think of charity while working for rural poor? Why do we always call them beneficiaries? A so-called poor farmer is the biggest giver to people like us…their dignity matters!!
“The poor have the right to demand basic needs. They are not beggars,” he says. Where many Indians—even women—shy away from discussing menstruation, Gupta uses Goonj as a mouthpiece to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene and help urbanites realise that what they take for granted in cities is a struggle for rural women. Goonj makes cloth pads—MY Pads— from urban cotton cloth, and has—in the last few years—delivered over 3 million MY Pad pieces to remote areas in India. “This number may seem huge to you, but in a country of a billion, it’s nothing,” Gupta says.
That a young man from an urban middle-class family can think about and talk of something as taboo as menstruation highlights Gupta’s ability to talk straight and find sustainable solutions to India’s many problems.
Goonj is funded mostly by individuals across India. In a country that still battles discrimination on casteist lines, Gupta says he does find it difficult sometimes to bring people together. “We just hop on to the next village,” he says. “When caste conscious men see neighbouring villages develop, they grudgingly unite but my work is done.” Gupta is happy that most villages his organisation has assisted are now able to spot concerns and come up with ideas to resolve their needs. “It makes this effort sustainable and something that will be carried forward in the years to come,” he says.
I remember Richard Attenborough’s award-winning movie—Gandhi (1982)—in which the Mahatma gives away a piece of his clothing to a poor woman dressed in rags. The scene said a lot about why Gandhi may have focused on human dignity through clothes, thus starting the Khadi movement, which was as much a lesson in self-reliance as a tool to clothe the millions of poor villagers in India.
With Gandhi’s philosophy in mind, Goonj continues to reach out to rural India by attempting to bridge the gap between urban and rural Indians. “The biggest challenge is changing the mindset of people. “To grow into a more inclusive society is one of our goals,” he says, adding that Goonj hasn’t accomplished even half of what it intends to do. “We have a long way to go,” Gupta concludes.
Photo Credit: Sushi Menon