Goonj foundation

Helping the underprivileged live with dignity: The story of Goonj

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Anshu Gupta sheds light on his journey so far, and the challenges he faced in helping the financially poor live a dignified life.
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We all have heard the saying, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ For some, changing the world entails helping the needy through charity or donation. While others may want to associate with an NGO or start their own. Irrespective of what your inclination is, a real change in society can only be brought when you are truly passionate about something. True harbingers of change put the needs of others first and constantly work towards their betterment.

Ramon Magsaysay award-winner Anshu Gupta is one such individual who has been working tirelessly to uplift the marginalised. A former journalist, Gupta, who is popularly known as the ‘clothing man’ of India, has been addressing the neglected issues of the financially poor for over two decades with an emphasis on clothing as a sustainable development resource for the underprivileged.

His initiative, Goonj, founded in 1998, has been involved in various rural development issues and have made an impact in areas of education, disaster relief and rehabilitation, sanitation, menstrual health, and more. One of the most significant aspects of Goonj has been recycling urban discard, which is donated from the cities to India’s remote villages.

Gupta believes in solving issues together with the local communities, “instead of a top-down approach, where people like us go as contractors and start doing the work.” He adds, “It is more important that we can take care of some basic issues which need to be solved. Those issues need to be told to us by the communities instead of us deciding on them.”

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Gupta sheds light on his journey so far, and the challenges he faced in helping the financially poor live a dignified life.

Goonj was founded to use urban discard as a tool to eliminate poverty. What was your inspiration behind this initiative?

Clothing has always been grossly ignored as a development issue. The initiative started through my personal experiences on the road during my journalism days, looking at people and seeing how winters were harsh for migrants and the homeless.

The initiative has spent over two decades working for the betterment of rural India. How has the journey been? 

For me, Indian villages and village communities have been the biggest universities. Between what I learned during the initial years of my career and education and what I learned in the last 20-23 years, the second journey is more enriching and real. I will not say that everything I read was wrong, but practically it is very different. This also has been the journey of exploring a lot of things, including our own potential. I didn’t know this is what I can do or want to do. We were able to experiment a lot and see the country and the world in a better and deeper way.

Eliminating poverty in a country like India is not easy. What challenges did you face?

One of the constant challenges has been (dealing with) the mindset of people, especially the urban population. People don’t understand that a lot of passionate people have left their cushy lives to get into this (social development sector), not to make money but to do something good and meaningful. In the last few years or decades, a large number of people coming from the best institutions have left their careers to enter the social development sector to try and make a difference. It’s painful to hear the useless words that some insensitive and inexperienced people say about the sector.

You turn discarded material into useful resources for the financially poor. Can you tell us how this works?

Society has different economic levels and needs. We try to use a single lens to solve a lot of problems. In a country like India, which is so diverse culturally and geographically, there is no uniform solution to the issues. Instead of imposing agendas, can we listen to the people and understand what they need?

The model for the ‘Cloth for Work’ (now known as ‘Dignity for Work’) initiative is that a village community will decide what they need (roads, water bodies, Anganwadi, waterbody) and then they work on that. They receive the material from the city, which is curated in a detailed manner. We saw a clear-cut opportunity in the tonnes of material lying underutilised in the cities such as utensils, furniture, pipe fitting, footwear, and apparel. There is a huge resource locked in the boxes and wardrobes of people. We go through a rigorous process to match the needs of people with the available resources.

Goonj creates awareness about menstrual health and hygiene in rural India. How did you educate the rural population on this topic?

I believe that a large number of people are looking for solutions to their problems. They need people with good intentions, who listen and try to come up with a joint solution. That’s what happened to us. We were the first ones to talk about this issue in India and we started having the conversation more openly. We wanted to do deep-rooted work and understand what the exact issue is. Unfortunately, many people think that products can solve problems, but I don’t agree. For us, it is not about selling a product, but how to open up about the subject.

When we started having this conversation in the villages, people were hesitant. Slowly it changed and now people are open to talk about it. They see a solution, a dialogue, which talks about education on this subject and its relation to the other health conditions. Something which started with 4-5 men and women talking together, evolved over time. Now we can do jansabhas on this topic.

The youth is the answer to socio-economic challenges. How can they prepare themselves to become the leaders of tomorrow?

They can become capable if they are aware, travel more, and spend time with the communities. They have the energy and access to information, but what they need to have is patience. They should not start an institution just for the sake of starting it. A lot of people come to us and say that they want to start a social enterprise, an NGO, and my first question is ‘why’ and ‘what is the purpose of starting it?’ In my opinion, it should be due to something you are passionate about or something that is bothering you.

You mentioned empathy and dignity have been integral to your journey at Goonj. In this post-pandemic world, what role do such virtues play? 

We need to be more careful about the language we are using and how we are treating people. We have to be more sensitive. Not that it was not needed earlier, but even more so now. A lot of people, including us, have suffered. But we will soon forget because we stay in good houses. The pandemic has crippled the dignity of several people. Dignity is not something you give to someone. People are born with it.

All of us who can still afford a good salary need to pay back. Ultimately, because of the financially weaker population, we could survive. Because of farmers, we were able to eat but they never got their due prices. Because of construction workers, we got our houses made but they never had a house for themselves. In the last almost two years, the people who are grossly ignored, right from the municipality workers to delivery boys and girls, we need to be thankful to them and pay back if we really understand the meaning of empathy.

Happiness means different things to different people. How does it translate into your work and life?

Several things bring happiness to me. Many of these small things make me happier than the big achievements. Happiness is when I am using the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ minimally in a day. Happiness is when the people with whom you work, your team, and your family understand and have the confidence in you that if something wrong happens, you have a group you can go and talk to.

Do you have any advice for the millennials of India, who want to make a difference?

Our country doesn’t need thinkers, it needs doers. It needs actions and initiatives. Time is very precious. It is our choice that either we spend time on the toxic social media debates or do something meaningful. When you work with people, at the end of the day you learn and your life becomes richer.

  • A social entrepreneur, Anshu Gupta is the recipient of Ramon Magsaysay Award which he received for his work on eliminating poverty and helping the financially poor to live a dignified life. His initiative, Goonj has created a barter between urban surplus and village communities' labour, triggering large-scale rural development work. Anshu has won several national and international honours like Ashoka and Schwab Fellowship, while Forbes Magazine has listed him as one of India’s most powerful rural entrepreneurs.

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