Dubbed as the “Clothing Man”, ANSHU GUPTA, a recipient of the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay award, founded Goonj with an objective to put some fundamental deprivations of the poor on the development agenda.
His mission was to channelise unused or underutilised development resources, through even recycling, into underdeveloped or rural areas to help deprived people cope with basic but daunting challenges in their lives.
He started by making cloth — a basic but ignored need of economically vulnerable people — a crucial resource in this regard, working on it and bringing it on the development map. Anshu studied mass communication apart from doing a masters in economics and started as a freelance journalist.
He left a corporate communications job in 1998 to establish Goonj, which has undertaken community development, disaster relief and rehabilitation work across the country, turning every disaster into an opportunity to reach resources and attention to the most ignored communities.
In an interview with RAKESH KUMAR, Anshu, 50, spoke about his journey and challenges facing the NGO sector.
Q. Could you outline the work you and your NGO Goonj are engaged in currently?
A. Goonj aims to recognise and value the potential of traditional wisdom of people and the local resources, with the focus concentrated on the receiver’s dignity instead of the donor’s pride. Goonj has built a network of communities from urban to village India, channelising material as a tool to address crucial gaps in rural infrastructure, water, environment, livelihood, education, health, disaster relief and rehabilitation.
Through our various initiatives, being executed across 26 states/UTs, we promote a circular economy by ensuring maximum use of each and every material. Our engagement with both the urban and rural population has galvanised a mass civic participation in addressing basic but neglected issues.
Goonj’s model of development implemented through the various initiatives proposes a more inclusive alternative economy where everyone is an equal stakeholder in the process.
Q. How did the idea of setting up Goonj come to your mind and why?
A. Goonj started its journey in 1999 with me and my wife Meenakshi Gupta. Highlighting cloth as a metaphor for basic but ignored needs of the economically weaker sections of the society, we started Goonj to bring clothing into the development agenda as something important to work on.
Goonj created a barter setup between urban surplus and the village communities’ wisdom and labour, triggering large-scale rural development work.
Thus, making “Clothing a Matter of Concern”, we worked on transforming the culture of giving in India, highlighting material as a sustainable development resource and offering an economic model for eliminating poverty and related issues.
Q. How do you look at the trajectory of your organisation — and your journey — over the last two decades?
A. Goonj doesn’t want to be known as just another NGO; in fact, we don’t want to be known as an NGO. Goonj is an idea, a voice, an effort.
We have always measured our success not just in terms of the number of people benefited or the amount of material collected or distributed — the success parameter is the number of organisations replicating the idea, the number of people continuing the activities done through our “Dignity For Work” initiative without any incentive.
At the end of the day, Goonj doesn’t want to just “help” people in need, rather wants to make them realise their potential. In short, our journey has always aimed to build more and more change makers.
Q. A large number of people and migrant workers — especially the poor, vulnerable and marginalised people — have undergone immense distress, trauma and hardship during the continuing Covid pandemic. Many of them are now without any gainful employment. How do you assess this grim situation and what is your prescription for its mitigation?
A. Millions of people walked back home at the start of India’s lockdown, having lost all means of sustenance in the cities. The miseries and indignities that they were subjected to, will remain in the collective memory of all of us.
But, we at Goonj, centered deeply in the dignity of people, have used this negative to strengthen and sharpen our resolve to restore the freedom, aspirations and well-being of these people with our local livelihood initiative, “VAAPSI” (Bringing Back).
Acknowledging and believing that selfsustenance is the only way forward, we harp on Vaapsi, a tried and tested idea around creating large-scale livelihood in rural India, enabling people to be independent while valuing what they know and have. Matching their skills, wisdom and aspirations with the needs of the area, Vaapsi gives people a chance to improve their own lives before changing it.
Instead of being transactional and individually led, it also mobilises individuals to be important contributors to their community. In the time of Covid especially, we pushed our pan India work on Vaapsi more rigorously. Our “Dignity For Work” (Shram Samman) approach works as the spine for us in supporting the projects on livelihood.
Q. What is your take on the challenges facing the non-profit sector in India?
A. Voluntary sector has been playing a very extensive and deep role in the country, especially in the area which is very remote. But one would not know the value of an institution, which is working with the cancer patient till one has a cancer patient at home.
Almost, all of us have gone through those phases in our life, where we have used one of the voluntary sectors in a big way. But I feel very sad when such wrong things are said about the sector. People don’t understand what kind of huge talented pool of people are running these institutions with such passion.
If making money would have been our aim, we would have earned in business or in politics or in other jobs. There may be some wrong people, but wrong people can be found everywhere in every field.
Q. The Central government recently got the Foreign Contribution Regulation (Amendment) legislation passed by Parliament,which was seen by many NGOs as a bid to subvert their work and curb dissent. Your comments?
A. Let me tell you one thing, the NGO sector is already highly regulated. It files more reports than a corporate sector or a business sector or a media sector. We have all accounts opened or details given on our websites.
There is so much scrutiny happening. One who is working well, he will keep working and one works dishonestly will be caught some day. Every political party has an NGO, every business man has an NGO and philanthropists have NGOs. Whenever any disaster happens you need an NGO to help. Therefore, don’t defame one particular sector.
Q. Amnesty International recently shut down its India operations, alleging “witch-hunt” being pursued by the Centre and its agencies against human rights organisations. Do you think the space for such organisations to operate in the country has been shrinking now?
A. We should not see only Amnesty International. It may be in any sector, which could impact the image of the country globally. Tomorrow, if any two businesses shut down in India, won’t it dent India’s image? Or two big media houses refuse to work in India, it will also have an impact on the country’s image.
Why do we only point out the developmental sector, it is also like any sector, it also gives jobs. If this country is not able to recognise the value of the NGO sector after the Covid pandemic, then when is it going to do so? When this entire crisis unfolded, it was us, who didn’t have any PPE kit or proper knowledge (then about the pandemic) who worked honestly and tried to do the best we could do.