In conversation with Magsaysay awardee Anshu Gupta

"Participation of citizens needs to improve. Good work happens when people form a feeling of responsibility. Today the biggest trend for people is to crib"

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Puja Bhattacharjee | August 20, 2015 | New Delhi


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Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher and novelist, had said, “We must act out passion before we can feel it.” For Anshu Gupta, work has always been a matter of passion. In 1998, when clothing was not even considered as an issue of social importance, he started Goonj, an NGO, to highlight clothing as a basic but unaddressed need. For more than a decade now, Goonj has been repositioning discarded items of urban households as a development resource for villages. It has also been involved in relief and rehabilitation activities in disaster-hit areas. On July 29, Gupta was conferred the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for “his creative vision in transforming the culture of giving in India, his enterprising leadership in treating cloth as a sustainable development resource for the poor, and in reminding the world that true giving always respects and preserves human dignity”. Puja Bhattacharjee spoke to him at the processing centre of Goonj in Madanpur Khadar village in south Delhi.

How are you planning to utilise the exposure you are getting after being conferred the Ramon Magsaysay award?

Frankly, it is not in my hand. People should take interest in the work we are doing. So far, those who have taken an interest come here primarily to study the supply chain management (which I find very silly as any logistics work has supply chain management). It is extremely important for people to understand the ethos, the concept of the parallel economy, which we say is trash-based and not cash-based, the larger concept of civic participation; how people are getting involved and how second-hand material is taking the shape of currency. Those are the things people need to study, understand, and replicate. Hopefully clothing will now be considered in the list of development subjects.


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Have you observed any significant change in the mindset of people regarding clothes?


Mindsets are tough to overcome but it is happening. We have found very good people during our 16-year journey. Some people come and see our facility and change the way they think about clothes. We have never advertised ourselves except for updating Goonj’s Facebook page regularly. Media keeps writing about Goonj every now and then. It is the word of mouth that has really worked for us. People who visit us tell others about it. That’s how Goonj keeps growing.


How has the civil society contributed towards the growth of Goonj?

Voluntary organisations play a very active role by helping us implement our initiatives.


Is there any new project you are focussing on right now?

We are focussing on the School to School initiative. We have not been very successful so far. The idea of the project is to exhort children to work on basic etiquettes and behaviour and then reward them with school materials. Unfortunately, the schools in villages have been turned into free distribution centres by the government, local NGOs, clubs, and through corporate social responsibility. I always say that ‘the child is the biggest victim of charity’. We teach our own children dignity but do not think twice before donating for underprivileged children. If you make children victims of charity, they do not realise that they have to earn what they get in charity. Instead, they start taking it as a right. It is very difficult to persuade local organisations or schools not to give things for free. This wrongdoing of people in the society needs to be broken. We are able to collect a lot of material for the project but when it goes to the villages it is not adding value the way we want it to.


How are you addressing this problem?

Ultimately we have to sell our ideas again and again. You have to showcase the value of it. As a child, I used to work the entire year to get a Camlin geometry box. It was a reward system for my efforts. So I find these materials turning into rewards.


In these two-three years, how have the operations scaled up?


In the last two years, four new offices have come up – three in Uttarakhand (in Uttarkashi, Guptakashi and Rishikesh) and one in Srinagar. This is significant progress. In Uttarakhand, we are operating at a massive scale. We have employed more than 200 people as soojni makers. Soojni is a thick cloth which can be used as a blanket as well as a mattress. Soojni work has generated a lot of employment locally which was earlier confined to Bihar. The volume of material we handle has gone up as with every disaster a lot of new people come to know about Goonj. As the support base keeps growing, more material keeps coming in.

It was also a learning phase for us. Carrying out relief operations in Nepal was a challenge.

Even though our first area of expertise is clothes, but cloth is now just a part of Goonj. We have been working on health (by making and distributing sanitary pads to women in villages under ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’) and education.


How have people responded to the ‘Cloth for Work’ model?


Earlier, people did not know that clothes can be given in lieu of work. That is the only new thing we have done. We have been able to break the myth surrounding clothing and bring it on the agenda.


Can you share an interesting anecdote from your travels?


During the initial phases of Goonj, I travelled to a remote village in the Vaishali district of Bihar. At that time, we had not introduced the Cloth for Work model. We had given some clothes to a few villagers. When we went back a few months later, many people touched our feet. I was 12 years younger back then (laughs). It was a bit of shock. We tried to find out why they were showing us so much respect. In Bihar, people buy a lot of clothes during chhath puja. The garment traders go around in the villages carrying clothes on bicycles. Villagers could choose the clothes they like and pay the amount in the course of next three years. It was a very lucrative business. But due to very low income, especially in those days, the villagers could not pay back the amount and were forced into bonded labour by the traders. It was very shocking for us to find out that people could become bonded labourers for clothes. We never knew of this aspect of clothing. We then decided to flood the area with clothes before a festival. In this particular village, in that particular year, the villagers did not have to buy clothes and came out of this vicious cycle.


What according to you desperately needs to change in our country?

Participation of citizens needs to improve. Good work happens when people form a feeling of responsibility. Today the biggest trend for people is to crib. Everybody is an intellectual. People who do not have any practical experience can write essays on Facebook and criticise five doers in one post. I want them to come out of their houses and see what is happening on the ground. These people probably never stepped out of their homes. If they want to live a dignified life, it is time for action.


What challenges did you face while researching?

Menstruation is a taboo in our country. Women are silenced from voicing their opinion through a culture of shame. This is something a woman does not share with anybody, not even with her husband. The moment she gets an opportunity, she opens up. We made mistakes in the initial phase. We called it a human issue and not a woman issue. We used to call both men and women for discussions. With time we realised that if men are sitting, women will not talk. Then we called for women-only discussions. We, however, discovered that if the mother-in-law is sitting, the daughter-in-law will not open up. Then we were able to filter them out by breaking them into small groups. The next time it was much easier as the word had spread. 


What kind of people do you wish to work with?

In Goonj, we only ask for passion. We do not seek qualification or expertise. That way we have been lucky. A lot of passionate youngsters are working with us. We have to remember that we are working because there are pressing issues in the country. If the system was perfect and everyone had the right attitude, we wouldn’t need to work.

puja@governancenow.com

The interview appears in the August 16-31, 2015 issue)

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