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This article was first published 8 years ago  » News » India's Cloth Man on winning the Magsaysay

India's Cloth Man on winning the Magsaysay

By Upasna Pandey
Last updated on: August 04, 2015 11:17 IST
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Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, has transformed the culture of giving in the country.

He has for 16 years now, worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, by making discarded materials a resource for the poor. His weapon, he says, is 'cloth as a tool of social change.'

Upasna Pandey caught up with India's 'cloth man', as Anshu Gupta is popularly known, days after he won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.

As he sat at the Goonj processing centre near Sarita Vihar, Delhi, Gupta looked back at how the journey began in 1999, the challenges he faced, the need for youth to realise their role in bringing about social change and the government versus NGO battle.

IMAGE: Anshu Gupta shares a light moment with Goonj volunteers. He was named India's Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 by the Schwab Foundation in 2012, a sister organisation of the World Economic Forum. He is also an Ashoka Fellow.

What was your first reaction to winning the Magsaysay Award?

My family and my Goonj team were elated to hear the news. It has brought new optimism and I hope it will allow us to talk more easily about the issue of clothing to larger audiences, within India, at the government and non-government levels, and across the world. I hope it would also help in including clothing in the millennium developmental goals.

How did you start Goonj?

I studied at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication and set out as a journalist. I have also worked in the corporate sector. It was disturbing to see apathy towards the basic need of clothing.

For instance, every year, there are reports of deaths across big and small cities due to acute cold in winters. These are recurring calamities which can be avoided, with the provision of proper clothing, food and shelter. While shelter and food has been getting attention, I found little focus on clothing.

'Every year, we convert over 1,000 tonnes of used clothes, household goods and other urban discards into usable resources for the poor.'

So, I quit my corporate job and along with some friends and my wife, we set up Goonj. The initial focus was on collecting material and reaching out to those who need it.

Goonj works to provide relief during disasters, humanitarian aid and community development.

Every year, we convert over 1,000 tonnes of used clothes, household goods and other urban discards into usable resources for the poor.

We collect and deliver tons of material through a network of thousands of volunteers and grassroot organisations. Goonj also runs many infrastructure and local development projects in villages and slum areas.

What is the key to Goonj's success?

We have been able to successfully challenge many traditional ways of working as well as breaking down many traditional mindsets.

When we founded Goonj, my wife Meenakshi and I faced many personal challenges, as I had quit my corporate job. We opted to manage on one salary. We even washed material we received at our home. We did not have space for keeping the material and for processing it. But we have never asked for funds for Goonj; we don't make any fundraising calls to anyone.

Another core principal on which Goonj works is that there are no 'givers' or 'receivers' of donations. At Goonj, we focus on a participatory approach, wherein there are stakeholders, be it people who contribute material, Goonj, which adds value and processes the material, the partners and channels which help in disbursing, and the final stakeholder, who is the person that uses the material.

Goonj has been able to play a significant role in disaster relief across Uttarakhand, Kashmir and in Nepal. We are not seen as a prominent relief management organisation, but more as a trusted stakeholder, which we have worked quite diligently on.

Another area of focus is our 'non-negotiables;' this means we seek equality in partnering with all stakeholders.

Goonj has focused on cloth and also other areas including rural development, bridging urban-rural school connect, and also women's health. What are the focus areas for the future?

Right from the beginning, we have aimed to optimally utilise whatever material we receive. So, we have not diversified, but added value to the material we have been getting.

One such initiative is the creation of hygienic, cheap, reusable cloth sanitary pads under 'Not Just a Piece of Cloth.'

The other initiative, 'Cloth for Work,' is all about creating opportunities for rural communities to participate in creating infrastructure, be it in the form of roads, bridges, wells, or any other specific requirement of a community, and the use of cloth as remuneration for the work done.

Every year, over 1,000 such activities are taken up across villages. This is also about attaching dignity to the process of material sharing.

'Every year, over 1,000 activities are taken up across villages. This is also about attaching dignity to the process of material sharing.'

So, as we continue to scale up, I think we will look deeper into issues which are critical for development.

For instance, we used to get a lot of waste material, so in 2008, we started sujni.

This initiative is about processing waste cloth and other material into comfortable, cheap and light-weight mattresses-cum-quilts. They are part of our kits for rural areas as well for disaster relief. It is a major source of livelihood for women from impoverished families.

IMAGE: Anshu Gupta interacts with the media at a Goonj processing centre.

What are the stumbling blocks for you as an NGO?

We started out with the idea of not having dedicated spaces for Goonj, which we would own. The result is that our processing centre in Delhi, for instance, is run out of properties which are owned by 15 different people. So, the day-to-day issues are avoided.

Logistics will be a big challenge in the coming years, as we get larger quantities of material. We need space and transport for processing and timely disbursal across the country. We will focus on this now.

'We are all deeply indebted to pay back to society. We need to contribute towards the growth of our society.'

How do you see the growth and role of NGOs in the country? How do you react to reports of greater government scrutiny?

There is a lot that needs to be done by NGOs and the way corporate social responsibility funding is coming into play, it is too structured and there are pressures of numbers.

The focus has to be on qualitative social change while right now it is more about quantities and numbers.

Government focus and scrutiny is welcome, but it should not be restricted to the NGO sector only, there needs to be a holistic approach.

What is your message for the youth of India, the communities which partner with social organisations and your expectation from the government?

The youth needs to realise that this is a golden opportunity to do tangible work and make their contribution in social development. While our parents struggled to meet the basic needs of families, today's youth are struggling for individual growth.

The youth need to remember that when they grow, the country will also grow.

Also, we all have availed subsidies in some form or the other, whether it is for education, health, or other facilities, so we are all deeply indebted to pay back to society. We need to contribute towards the growth of our society.

I also hope that the government will give due importance to NGOs in partnering in development, just as we pay attention to education and other sectors.

Who are the people you want to credit for supporting you in your journey as a social entrepreneur?

I give all the credit to people around me, my family, my wife, Meenakshi, who is also a co-founder of Goonj, my daughter, for being supportive and patient, for believing in me and sharing my passion.

I am thankful to my entire team at Goonj and everyone who has been associated with us, as volunteers and other stakeholders. We have continued to believe in our ideas, we have been straightforward as a team, and remain aware of our responsibility and need for transparency.

With this Award, we feel humble and hope more people and organisations will take up the idea and replicate the work so that more people can benefit across India and globally.

Disclosure: Upasna Pandey is associated with Goonj as a voluntary team member.

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