The couple huddled in the biting wind, flimsy rags covering their thin bodies. Between them, shivering in a tattered cotton dress, was their six-year-old daughter, her lips blue from the cold. Although freelance journalist Anshu Gupta had come across hundreds of homeless families on his beat in New Delhi, the sight of Kaneez Bano, the frail little girl so inappropriately clothed for this 3⁰C winter evening, made him stop and ask the couple if he could help.
The dejected pair told him their names – Habib and Amina Begum – and explained they were municipality workers who were so desperate for money they disposed of unclaimed dead bodies after policemen had finished investigating the cause of their deaths. They were paid around Rs25 (about Dh1.50) for every corpse they cremated.
The wage was hardly enough to keep them fed, and certainly not enough for clothes. But Kaneez found her own – shocking – way to keep warm: cuddling up to corpses her parents brought to cremate. “They don’t turn over, so they don’t disturb me,” the little girl explained to the horrified journalist.
“I couldn’t sleep for days after that night,’’ says Anshu. “The image of that girl shivering in the cold night – and what desperate measures she was forced to take to keep warm – kept me awake. I wanted to do something for her and for others like her on the streets.”
Still struggling to establish his career, Anshu, 42, hadn’t been able to do anything more than give the family a little money to buy some food or maybe a blanket, but he made up his mind that the moment his own fortunes turned, he would go about helping people like Kaneez.
And that happened a few years later.
“When my wife, Meenakshi, got a job with the BBC in Delhi, we decided that we’d exist on her income while I set about establishing a charity that would collect unwanted but clean clothes from people, sort them, mend them if necessary, and then distribute them to people in need,” Anshu says.
As he discussed his idea with Meenakshi it kept growing and expanding. This was how they came up with the name for their charity – Goonj – which means ‘echo’ in Hindi. “Like a ‘goonj’ we wanted the idea to spread across the world,’’ he says.
Anshu started by rummaging through his own wardrobe to find clothes he and his wife no longer needed. He found tops, trousers, dresses and sweaters, which he distributed to the homeless on the streets. He asked his friends and family to do the same and slowly his initiative began to echo around the city, then the state, then the country.
More and more people joined in and soon Anshu had to set aside part of a room in his house to store all the clothes. And within five years he had to set up an office and a warehouse to store them.
Anshu’s entrepreneurial zeal didn’t allow him just to implement the idea and move on – he and Meenakshi kept evolving it to overcome problems and take advantage as new opportunities arose.
The role of dignity
Anshu believes that clothes are more than just a means to protect a person from the elements. “Clothes mean dignity,’’ he says. “A poor person might be able to get food one way or the other, but clothes are the last thing on people’s minds when it comes to donating to charity.
“We think of clothes only when a natural disaster befalls us or when you are moved to see a child or an elderly person shivering in the cold. Why is a basic need treated as relief material during disasters?”
Anshu’s idea was to treat the issue as a ‘non-natural, perpetual disaster’. And he wanted to make sure the clothes were distributed in a way that didn’t humiliate the recipients.
“I’ve often noticed that relief assistance to the needy is distributed in a way that degrades people,” he says.
He cites the example of the 1991 earthquake in Uttarkashi, in northern India, when villagers who were affected were thrown bundles of clothing from a truck that was racing down the road. The people providing the aid, in their haste to cover as much ground as possible in a short time, had not taken into account that the mode of distributing the clothes was perhaps as important as the aid itself.
“When I spoke to the affected people, I realised that their pride had been hurt. They were extremely upset by the way they were treated as tramps or beggars. Remember, they were people who were unfortunate to have lost everything in a natural disaster. Even though they didn’t have any clothes, they had dignity. So, most chose to dress in potato sacks rather than suffer the indignity of being considered as beggars.’’
Shifting the focus
Anshu also found that the clothes that were being handed out were not suitable. While many of the people were very traditional, the clothes they received were high-fashion items and totally unsuited to the weather conditions there.
“Unfortunately, the biggest problem with donations is that you give what you have,” he says. “You often don’t give what people need. Somewhere we need to dignify giving by shifting the focus from donor’s pride to receiver’s dignity.”
Anshu did a quick, informal study of a village in northern India and found that in many cases, poor people were happy to work and earn a living rather than beg for things.
“Clothes, I realised, could be a valuable currency to be traded to improve the lives of people in many parts of the world,’’ he says. After brainstorming with Meenakshi, he came up with a project he called Cloth for Work.
“It is one of the most important projects that Goonj operates,’’ he says. “We are creating a parallel economy through the programme. When we talk about development, or the economy, we talk about money as the only currency. But we can use clothing as currency. In the Cloth For Work scheme, work done by the villagers is paid for in clothes or other materials they need.”
The work benefits both the worker as well as his village. For instance, a vital bridge that had been washed away years ago was rebuilt by villagers under the ‘Cloth For Work’ scheme in Sukhasan, in Bihar state.
“People had been taking a circuitous route walking 10 kilometres to get to the other side,” says Anshu. He and a small group of volunteers visited the village and found that a new rudimentary bridge could be built.
He spoke to the village elders who quickly got together a group of people to start working on building the bridge. He says about 100 people contributed bamboo and a few days of labour to build the bridge. Goonj supplied nails and other hardware. The entire project cost around Dh180 in terms of raw materials. Goonj then paid the workers in kind – neat, clean clothes that had been donated.
The village elders later petitioned the government to improve the bridge and this resulted in a bridge made of concrete.
Since then Goonj has supported hundreds of similar Cloth for Work campaigns. The projects Goonj undertakes include building bridges, repairing roads, digging wells, building schools, anything that can be termed a development activity. And the projects are rewarding for the Cloth for Work team too. “It is heart-warming to see the smiles on the faces of workers when they get the clothes. You can see the pride they have when they walk around with the clothes that they have earned,’’ says Anshu.
Anshu says he wants to encourage the next generation to find solutions for problems they face, and for this reason he encourages youth organisations across India to contact Goonj to participate in the programme.
“Once we get a request from a group for a Cloth for Work project, the Goonj team vets the request to find out how it would benefit the community, and what kind of clothes the local people who would be working on it would require. We then check our warehouse to see if we have the requisite clothes and then give our approval to the project. If we don’t have the right clothes, we go on a collection drive, contacting individuals as well as corporates and, once the clothes are ready, we give the go-ahead.’’
Another area where Goonj has made a huge difference is in the largely tribal area of Salidana in the northern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
“The tribal people were struggling because there was a scarcity of potable water as the nearest well was several kilometres away from their village,’’ Anush explains. Goonj volunteers got a group of tribal people together who were well-diggers and promised to pay them in kind for their labour. In less than a week, the village had a well. The villagers were overjoyed.”
Today, Goonj operates collection centres in 10 Indian cities – Delhi, Indore, Siliguri, Mysooru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna and Bhubaneshwar.
With a paid staff of 130 – all from the slums in and around Delhi – and hundreds of volunteers across the 21 Indian states, Goonj’s outreach is enormous.
In conjunction with 250 charity partners, it helps around half a million people a year stay warm. It has conducted more than 900 development programmes in the past two years alone and its annual budget has grown to more than Dh2 million.
Goonj’s main office in Delhi is a microcosm of its operations. The staff work with factory-like efficiency to sort, grade, sterilise, match, repair, repurpose and pack contributions based on the needs of the recipients. Goonj makes use of just about everything it receives. It repairs saris and woollen clothes, which have the highest demand, and adds drawstrings to trousers, turns jeans into schoolbags, T-shirts into undergarments and cloth scraps into quilts. It even matches school uniforms by colour.
Goonj has the reputation of ensuring that the donated materials actually reach the intended recipients. The members of staff carefully vet charity partners and do follow-up visits. If that is impossible, they ask that photographs be taken to show the distribution of goods. They have a network of trusted locations for truck storage. “This is hard-core logistics and we have proved successful,” says Anshu.
It is little wonder that the UAE-based Landmark Group did not think twice when choosing Goonj as the recipient of the used clothes it had collected under its recent Clothes for Compassion collection drive.
Anshu’s work with Goonj has won him many awards, including the Game Changing Innovation award from Nasa and the US State Department. He has also been chosen for the CNN-IBN Real Heroes award, the World Bank’s Development Marketplace award, the Global Development Network award for the most innovative development project, and the 2012 Social Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship in Switzerland.
But he doesn’t think it’s a success because of him. “Goonj, or rather the idea behind it, has taken on a life of its own,” he says confidently. “In fact, that’s my dream – that people take this idea and run with it, forming their own groups to handle development issues as is already happening in many places in India.
“That’s when I’ll be happy.”