While urban India is expanding with new markets and busy buying new clothes, Anshu Gupta, the 2015 Magsaysay Award co-winner is clothing the “unclothed” rural India.
Quite often we hear Roti, kapda aur makan (food, cloth and shelter) termed the primary developmental goals, but how many policies and government schemes are framed to provide clothing to the common people? The answer is nil. Clothing is never seen as something that deserves much attention. The fact that this issue doesn’t feature anywhere is ignored by almost all but Gupta.
“Sometimes you tend to observe things. There are certain memories that remain etched on your mind. You think over it again and again. It happens subconsciously. So, I had a gradual understanding that clothes are very important for human dignity,” Gupta, who founded Goonj, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in 1999 after leaving his corporate job, said.
One such incident that remained etched on Gupta&’s mind was a meeting with a six-year-old girl. The young child&’s father eked a living by cremating dead bodies. As she was dressed in torn clothes in a cold December night, Gupta, out of curiosity asked her how she protected herself from the harsh winters, the girl simply said, “I hug a dead body and sleep when I feel cold.”
That episode compelled Gupta, now known as the “Clothing man” to think and observe how people around him were “clothed” and “unclothed”. He, along with his wife then, collected and distributed 67 clothes to the homeless people in the capital. This initiative that started with a mere 67 is now spread across 21 states of the country. They distribute around 1,000 tonnes of used clothes every year and it even scales up to 2,000 tonnes when they rush to serve the needy in disaster hit areas.
Today, the organisation, has started several programmes like ‘Cloth for work’, ‘Not just a piece of cloth’, ‘School to school’, and ‘Rahat’ to help the deprived sections of the society. What makes all these initiatives stand out is the fact that they aren’t given as ‘donation’ or ‘charity’. For instance, under the ‘Cloth for work’ initiative, the receivers of these used clothes, get them as a reward for their labour -- repairing roads to recharging water ponds to building bamboo bridges.
When asked why he doesn’t donate clothes to those in need instead of making them work, Gupta said, “How can we give dignity to the body and snatch dignity from the souls?”
“As we started understanding the country little better, we realised that self-respect and dignity are the biggest assets of the common people. The words like charity and donation strip people of self-respect,” he added.
“When we see villagers building bridges and wells to take these clothes in return, we also start weaving bigger dreams, if a 20 feet bridge is constructed, we hope to see these communities build a 200 feet next time,” Gupta proudly said with a smile on his face.
Then, there&’s the issue of menstrual hygiene that the nation shies away from discussing. Goonj, realising the seriousness of the problem started the programme ‘Not just a piece of cloth’ (NJPC) and broke the culture of silence and shame that surrounded the crucial issue of menstruation in India.
“It is a human issue and we cannot isolate it. Sadly, it is not just rural India, even in metropolitan cities, they cover sanitary pads in black covers, hide them with newspapers while selling, what is the need to do all that?” said Gupta who studied at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, adding, “In recent past the situation did change to a certain extent though.”
At the manufacturing unit of Goonj, they use clothes to make hygienic re-usable sanitary pads named ‘My pad’ for the rural women. They also make underwears as the women in villages do not wear anything to hold the pads.
“We make sanitary napkins with loops and various designs. It did take some time to evolve. But, ‘NJPC’ has actually started a movement. People talk about menstruation openly now,” Gupta said.
“The women who work in our centres also use ‘My pad’. I quite often say ‘It&’s the first lab where technicians use their products’,” the Ashoka and Schwab fellow added.
Although, Gupta takes pride in the ‘Cloth for work’ and ‘NJPC’, he isn’t equally happy about the ‘School to School’ programme. They distribute pens, pencils and toys to children in village schools and anganwadis centres as a part of the initiative. While distributing, the organisation also tries to teach the children a lesson or two on cleanliness and honesty.
“We don’t want children to become victims of charity. The government is giving free education, free meal, free books and uniforms, but are they really helping? Why are private schools flooding in villages? Why is the quality of education deteriorating?" asked Gupta.
“We do not want to add to the process of giving freebies to school kids. We should innovate and make this programme better and more effective,” said the social entrepreneur, who was born in a middle-class family in the Himalayas.
As he grew up in the hills and loved to write Hindi poems, Gupta named his organisation “Goonj”, and said that he was “happy that the name has found its relevance today”.
When the Uttarakhand floods left many homeless, Gupta&’s organisation sent clothes, utensils and toys to help the people there. They did the same during Kashmir, Bihar, Assam floods, Muzaffarnagar riots and Nepal earthquake.
Speaking about this initiative ‘Rahat’, which mainly assists people in disaster-hit areas, Gupta said, “In the last four years, we sent 400 trucks of relief material.”
Changing the notion of “giving” in the country, while “focusing on receiver&’s dignity, rather than the donor&’s pride,” Gupta hopes that “the government and the social sector organisations work more closely in the near future and there&’s trust between these two entities so that society can benefit.”
Elaborating more on the relationship between the government and the voluntary sector, Gupta added, “Both the sectors work together in certain areas, like we work in anganwadis, but the government needs to be more open to the innovative ideas of the voluntary sector. NGOs shouldn’t only implement schemes, rather they should come up with fresh ideas; they should focus on how the schemes can be made bigger and more effective.”
“Voluntary sector has played a big role. Look at what Aruna Roy and Baba Amte did. They clearly changed the way our nation functions today,” he said, adding, “This sector deserves respect. Things hasn’t changed much in all these years since I started. There are some who trust us and there have been positive collaborations and tie-ups, but many look down upon us too.”
For this Delhi-based social entrepreneur, prizes and recognitions aren’t something new, he won the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award in 2014, was also featured among Asia&’s top 10 social entrepreneurs in the same year in the The Top 10 of Asia magazine. While, in the year 2010, Forbe&’s listed him as one of the most powerful rural entrepreneurs in India.
When asked how Goonj has evolved and helped the society at large, Gupta said, with pride in his voice, “The myth that people don’t work in rural areas has been broken by us. The poor people are also willing to contribute towards the development of the country in a positive manner. We are only distorting the system of giving freebies and evolving a productive model.”
“Then, we were surprised that even Google didn’t have information about menstruation problems in India. Now, surf the internet and you will notice the change,” he added.
Elaborating further, the Goonj founder said, “Poor are poor everywhere. Poor pockets are poor pockets. So, every state of the country needs support and help,” and with the new-found recognition due to the Magsaysay Award announcement, he hoped that “Goonj&’s idea grows.”
“Clothing, sanitary hygiene has to become important developmental agenda. They have to be taken seriously,” he said, adding, “Interestingly, there isn’t any shortage of cloth in the country. Some have it in excess, while others don’t.”
“Beyond the supply chain management and donations, if the academia understand our work&’s value, then replication will be easier. We want to grow as an idea and not as an organisation,” with these words Gupta signed off, rushing towards his team to create more innovative ideas to give dignity to the lives of many, who are waiting for noble souls like him.
I had a gradual understanding that clothes are very important for human dignity: Gupta