Anshu Gupta, founder of 'Goonj' and co-winner of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, has reinterpreted Gandhi, taking the philosophy forward to a core challenge of our times, the growing gap between urban prosperity and rural poverty.
Those who've seen Richard Attenborough's Gandhi are unlikely to forget this scene. Gandhi is in a train which has stopped near a river.
A woman is bathing and trying to cover herself as best as she can with tattered pieces of cloth.
Suddenly, a strong current takes away the only piece of clothing she has.
She watches helplessly, then realises Gandhi is watching her and ducks back into the water.
Gandhi takes off his angavastram and floats it to her.
She snatches it, to cover her modesty. That scene brings home several messages but the primary one was, for many, cloth is not about vanity.
It is about dignity. Anshu Gupta, founder of 'Goonj' and co-winner of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, has reinterpreted Gandhi, taking the philosophy forward to a core challenge of our times, the growing gap between urban prosperity and rural poverty. He has used the former's disposable stuff as a tool to trigger large-scale development in some of the most backward and remote pockets.
Not only is the so-called urban waste addressing ignored basic needs, it's turning out to be a valuable asset for income generation.
A new dynamic, focused on the receiver's dignity, rather than the donor's pride. Delhi-based Goonj's most significant leap was the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004, when tonnes of cloth meant for survivors of the disaster lay piled in warehouses in Tamil Nadu.
Goonj got 100 trucks of this waste cloth recycled into sanitary pads, under an initiative called Not Just a Piece of Cloth.
Goonj recycles other waste by adding value to it. School bags are refurbished and turned into useful ones for village children.
Old T-shirts are used to fashion women's undergarments, introducing personal cleanliness - and, in the long run, help to prevent cancer.
Zips and buttons taken out of useless material are used to mend/repair clothes and also used for school bags and other products to cut the cost.
Baby beds are made of ultimate waste, where the last inch of cloth is used to create warm cribs for children, especially in colder regions to save them from winter.
Gupta expanded the scope of Goonj during the Bihar floods of 2008. Losing homes was traumatic for all families but especially for children.
It launched a programme called Chehak - in Hindi, the chirping giggle of a child. Chehak centres were to go beyond the basic food and shelter needs of children.
Discarded toys, clothes, reading material, unused stationery…everything was sent to the centres and local boys and girls recruited as volunteers to run these.
This was further extended to a programme called Waapasi - barbers were given hairdressing kits by Goonj and asked to cut the hair of the children at the Chehak centres every month as payback for their kits. The recipients of carpentry kits helped make tables and chairs for the Chehak centres as payback.
People who got rickshaws and thelas (handcarts) were asked to pay back Rs 15 a day for a year to a Chehak centre, to create a fund for supporting the fees of teachers there.
This cross-involvement model ran effectively for a year, while at least 1,200 in the age group of three to 16 years attended at the centres.
Gupta has done a master's degree in journalism (twice) and has a degree in economics.
He and wife Meenakshi (also a former journalist) oversee a team of volunteers, along with other former journalists and non-government activists.
Gupta told Business Standard in an interview last year how Goonj started: "As a student at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (in this city), I often went to Old Delhi. There I met Habib, the professional 'unclaimed body collector'. One December night, I accompanied him to collect an unidentified body at Khooni Darwaza (in the city's heart).
Wearing nothing but a thin cotton shirt, the man had clearly died of cold." That was when Gupta realised clothing as a basic human right was often overlooked, brought to the fore only as a disaster-relief measure.
Goonj was eventually born in 1999, with 67 clothes his wife and he had collected.
"I didn't want to give these clothes as an act of charity. Charity strips people of self-respect," he said.
That is how a programme called Çloth for Work came about. Goonj is now also supported by several companies and continues to grow.