Through his non-profit organization, GOONJ, Anshu Gupta has developed a new value chain for clothes and materials, which channels discarded and donated clothing and materials from cities to remote villages in India. Employing a ‘Clothes for Work’ approach, GOONJ collects, sorts, mends, washes, and dispatches the material to villagers based on geography and cultural needs, who in turn, become involved in village development activities. The program has enabled villagers to receive a basic need, improve their communities, send children to school, and create additional necessary resources such as bags, napkins, and baby beds. Anshu Gupta is a social innovator par excellence. He has not only identified social problems that are outside the radar screens of most NGOs and Government funding agencies, he has also been able to structure imaginative solutions to pressing social issues by recycling urban waste resources such as clothing and school materials.

GOONJ (which means “Echo” in Hindi) was founded by Anshu in 1998 with only 67 units of clothing. Now its impact reverberates in 21 states of India with over 40,000 kgs of material being processed every month.

During his decade long work his organisation GOONJ  has deservedly won many prestigious awards such as the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004, the World Bank’s Development Marketplace Award in 2007,  Indian NGO of the Year 2008, The Ashoka Changemakers Award in 2004, 2006 and 2009. The most recent one is the Lien i3 Challenge Award by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore.

He shares the stories behind his compassionate and innovative work on his trip to Singapore last year.

EWTT: You have often said that “to do something you need to be disturbed.”  What are the things that disturbed you to leave a corporate career and led you to the forming of “GOONJ?”

Anshu :  Whenever you step out of the house, there are hundreds of things that attract you- negative and positive things, perhaps one or two things register in your subconscious mind.  The unfortunate thing is that we have stopped looking at certain things in the context of the poor and their sufferings. We’ve taken things for granted. If the train comes late, it’s fine. If it comes on time, it’s news. If the road has a proper divider, that’s something of an achievement. A bad road is taken as the norm.

I spoke about floods in Assam and Bihar (North Eastern states of India). These have become a ritual. They are not even listed on the list of disasters now even though they have been annual disasters, right from my childhood. But when you talk of North East of India, you are talking about millions of people who are affected every year by natural calamities, and help is slow to reach them.

Once you really start looking at things, you will certainly be disturbed. Why are our roads bad? Why don’t people have clothes? Why is there so much poverty, despite so much resources? There’s no lack of wealth in India.

You really need to be disturbed. You need to have some anger. You can’t kill your anger. Anger is not meant for someone who bangs on your car. The anger is on the system, and on something which is not happening that should be happening.

EWTT:  When did that turning point come – the moment you decided you’re going to give up a cushy corporate life and do something for the needy?

Anshu: In 1998, I was struggling in my job. I wasn’t fitting into it. When I left, it was a conscious decision not to apply for another job.  I felt strongly about certain things, and decided to do something. I didn’t have any prior knowledge. No one amongst my family or friends had done something like this.

It started as a very informal thing. It didn’t start as a “revolution.” All I knew was that I wanted to work on some issues. The ‘how’ has evolved over the last 10 years.

A couple of things were absolutely clear.  First, the focus had to be primarily clothing. Second, we decided in the first few months that the target had to be villages, because that’s where the things don’t reach as people are not paying enough attention to the villages. This continues to be the biggest reason for all miseries. It forces people to leave the villages and increases the burden on cities.

We’re used to doing something after the problem. We have thousands of NGOs who are working on slums. But have we ever thought why these slums really come up in the first place? Instead of improving living conditions in the slums, can we stop the migration?  An average villager in India does not want to come to the city. In a city, chances are that a person won’t die of hunger. But in villages people die of hunger, because a villager will not beg, unlike in a city.

Why don’t we invest more in villages?  The basic thing they require is 2 meals a day. Of course, we don’t need to stop there. But at least if those two meals are secured, a lot of the migration will not take place.

EWTT: Why is clothing ignored as an issue? Why is clothing so important?

Anshu: If you talk about 3 basic needs, it’s food, clothing and shelter. When we talk about development, you don’t even find clothing mentioned on the list, although we call it a basic need. Obviously it’s ignored. People need to understand that a chappati ( flattened bread) cannot become a substitute for a shirt. Some people argue that food is more important, which I find is not the right argument. Who says food is not important? But do you ever say food or water? Similarly, we can’t say food or cloth. These are parallel needs.

Look at the number of people who die during winters in India. When you talk about it, people think it’s a very mundane subject, because people have accepted this as normal, and don’t question it any more. The death which happens due to lack of clothing is considered a normal death. There is no counting of this occurrence at all.

Some subjects like sanitary napkins for women are taboo. When the poor don’t have enough clothing to cover themselves, where are they going to get the cloth to use during their periods? They tend to use the dirtiest of cloths, with no access to a private place to wash them. Sometimes they are forced to use sand, ash, newspaper or pieces of gunny bags or even plastic.  In Rajasthan, a large number of women have no uterus, because they have to remove it the minute any infection appears.

Anshu:  Yes, that’s right. Earthquakes or floods may or may not happen, but these disasters due to lack of clothing are fixed and predictable disasters. There are two things we know with certainty: menses in the life of a woman and winters in the life of every person who lives in a cold region.  We even know the time lines, and the extent of the disasters, but these issues are off the radar screen.

EWTT:  How have you made clothing into such a useful resource and as you mentioned, a resource that is to be given and received with dignity?

Anshu: We have created an entire value chain around old cloth and materials. People think they are doing the poor a favour by giving them “donations’ in the form of clothing. In fact, it is they who are doing us a favour by extending the life of our “discarded” clothing. We all need to give away, but we need to add a lot of dignity in the entire process. So when you give your old clothing, make sure it’s in a wearable condition. We need to appreciate that someone is receiving that and give importance to that.

We also don’t want people to feel they have received a donation. We prefer them to receive clothing with dignity. We link the receipt of clothing with some development work that the villagers can do for their community, e.g., digging a well, or making a boundary wall or repairing a road, building a bridge across a river, rain water harvesting, so the villagers feel very proud of what they have done, and the family receive clothes as a reward. All depends on the needs of the community, as decided by the community.

With our network of volunteers and NGO partners, we can shift these urban waste resources to the poorer areas. We started in 1998 with only 67 items of personal clothing and now we have grown to distributing more than 40,000 kgs of material every month.

EWTT: This is a really innovative solution, where you’re enabling development work in a community, without the real need for monetary resources, and in the process providing what villages need most, clothing and other materials in return.

Anshu:  The concept has picked up well. We have done some work in the last one year, that even we couldn’t have imagined as possible. We never imagined we could dig a well without spending money, or build a bamboo bridge across a river without spending money. Now we have so much confidence that we can really do lots of things using innovative ways.

At the end of it, you won’t believe that the villagers don’t even ask for the clothes. They were so proud of what they had accomplished as a village, as a community.

Last month, I went to Khandwa, (in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh) where the villagers dug a well as a part of “Cloth For Work,”  just at the start of the monsoon season. There was this old lady. I teased her in Hindi, “Amma, yeh kuan to khod diya, ab to barish aayeegi hi. Ab dusra banana padega.”  ( Mother, you’ve made this well. The rains have come. You have to make a new well now.)

She replied, “Beta, tum ne raasta dikhadiya kuan banaaneka, ab ham pakka bhi kar denge”  (Son, you have shown us the way. Now we will firm up the well.)

Can you imagine a person whom the larger world considers ‘dependent’ is so confident of her ability now. She’s not even asking for support!

EWTT: What are some of the gaps when you receive clothing?

Anshu:  People need to be mindful about who is likely to receive the clothing and the circumstances of the person. e.g., there was a flood in Andhra Pradesh (a warmer state in South India) and we received monkey caps (woollen caps), which are of little use.

50% of the salwars (long loose pants tightened around the waist with a “nada” or string) have the “nada” taken out by the person making the donation, probably to use in another salwar. Just imagine, where can a person in a flooded area in crisis go for a nada!

Similarly simple things like tying shoe laces of both pair of shoes together, matters a lot, because shoes tend to get mixed up and it’s hard to find the matching pair.  We do take care of some of these gaps in our processing centre, but we need to be more mindful when giving.

EWTT: Can you give other examples of how you recycle what one would consider urban waste?

Anshu: Obviously we recycle tons of waste cloth not only to make products for the poor such as sanitary napkins, but also products that we can sell to people which really creates a huge employment for people, who are involved in sorting and recycling the clothes, and making them into products e.g., balls, different purses and bags. We also make mats out of audio tape films.

As an example of how we recycle paper, from engineering colleges there are about 16 lakh sheets of chart paper, which have been used on only one side. We involve engineering students in the voluntary work to bind these sheets, make notebooks, art books, and also as Braille paper for the blind.

EWTT: What is also remarkable about GOONJ is how agile you have been in responding to disaster situations, through the “pipelines” through partnerships that you’ve established with a network of NGOs.   How did you go about this process? Are NGOs coming to you to follow your example?

Anshu:  There’s already a good level of duplication that’s already happening, and also a few bad copies, where they’ve even lifted the text of our website verbatim, and changed the name of the group. But as long as they are doing the work, that’s fine.

What we wanted to do right from the beginning is to reach the masses. So to be able to handle large volumes, we started basically developing partnerships in the villages on a very simple parameter, that people on the ground know the communities much better than us. If we start doing everything everywhere, we can’t do much.  If we make these groups our hands, on the field, it will reach a larger group of people.

It will give them a lot of opportunities to relate to the communities. Unfortunately, most of the rural based NGOs are at the mercy of funding agencies. One year if they receive funds, the work is done.  If they don’t get funding the next year, then the work stops and they lose touch with the communities.

The entire initiative whether it’s school material, clothing, or cloth for work they all bring a definite resource to the NGOs, to do something and fill up the gaps. To give you an example, an NGO might have 1 crore rupees (about Sing$ 300K) to tackle the problem of AIDS in the villages or in the cities. You may have a health centre but the road, which people have to take to come to the centre, may be absolutely useless. From the project money, you can’t even take out Rs 10 to repair the roads – that’s where “Cloth For Work” comes into the picture.

In a village, you may have opened a school, but you can’t make a bridge that will help the children cross the river safely to the other side where their homes are. We can. The villagers can.  This is why it’s a successful model. The villagers built a bamboo bridge in Sukhasan, Bihar across a dangerous river that the children had to cross to get to school. Every villager had to donate one bamboo and 2 days of labour. We didn’t use the services of any engineer, only the wisdom of the villagers to construct the bridge. We spent only Rs 2,250 or about Sing $70 for the entire project.

For the entire initiative, an NGO doesn’t have to start anything new. They’re already working with communities on so many issues. They only have to integrate the cloth for work programme.

Operationally, we have about 150 partner groups, from smallest to the largest NGOs, micro-finance institutions, panchayats, and different kinds of groups. Very strong due diligence process we go through to work with them.

EWTT: What are the key challenges you’ve faced in the past, and how do you keep your morale high?

Anshu: The challenge is that what is traditionally considered a donation, we’re trying to convert it into a development resource. The challenge is also that we’re trying to work on something that is not even considered seriously as a subject or priority in development work.

So we have to tie these to the mindset of people, right from the individual to funding agencies to corporates. Everyone is tuned to certain things. An individual is tuned to give whatever that person has, but not necessarily in the manner we are talking about. A funding agency doesn’t want to touch us, as we don’t fall within their parameters.

The challenge has also been finances, but it has not worried us unduly. Till a few years back, occasionally we were even selling some stuff from our house to run the organisation and we often used to pay minimum  balance charges in our account. Then there were lots of people who trusted us based on the value of the work we were doing; that has became our greatest strength. They are still with us. Now, of course, after 10 years, we have been steadily scaling up our operations, and the time has come to actually seek out funding more actively.

It’s important to keep going. Things do go through a lot of rejection, because when you talk to someone, and that organisation or NGO tells you that it is not going to work, or they have better things to do. So we make it a better thing to do. If something has worked for even 2 people, that means it has some potential. Before giving up, we need to find out a reason why it’s not working. If the entire clothing project has helped certain people and certain pockets of India- in Karnataka and TN and Andhra which are comparatively warm places, maybe warm clothing is not an issue, but women need support for personal hygiene, in any part of the country. Even if some parts of the country don’t need clothing urgently, they certainly need development work. There are lots of needs, so can we identify those issues and do focussed work on people who need it instead of getting into a numbers game.

EWTT: Can you share any stories or incidents that really inspire you?

Anshu: In 1998-99 we used to go in our Maruti 800 car to visit the hospitals of Delhi.  There is a lot of migrated population, which generally don’t get much help. They are forced to live on the streets or outside the hospital, so in the daytime we did physiotherapy, and in the night, we’d be passing clothes in the absolutely chilly night.

There was an old lady looking for either a black cardigan or shawl. Our first reaction was, why is she being so choosy, when she doesn’t even have any warm clothing. Why black? We might have black, but I was curious to find out. She said, “Son, I have a red saree, and black will look good on it.”

In society’s eyes, she’s an extremely poor person, making tea on the roadside, but right at the beginning, this particular incident taught us a lot. We were very conscious from the outset, that every single person has a desire, and there is no problem in matching that if we just incorporate that in our systems. We can take care of these aspirations as far as possible.

We once found a girl blushing so much after getting a pencil box. We followed her, and she was telling her friends very proudly that she got a “fish” (a box shaped like a fish). She was so happy with that.

See your own children’s reaction and think about a poor child. All children are the same. If my daughter is happy getting a small sticker in that chips packet, for her the chips are not important, it’s that sticker which is important, so to for the rural kid or the slum kid.

One incident which I often share that gives us so much energy. On winter nights, we do anonymous distribution of clothing, which is not part of cloth for work. We do this between 10pm in the night to 1am in the morning. We go silently, and we see who is not covered with proper clothing, then we give them woollen clothes or blankets.

One night, it was around midnight in winter, we gave an overcoat to a person who didn’t have legs. We started moving slowly in the car, and we found this person following us on crutches. So we stopped the car, he came up to us. He rested on his crutches, put up his arms and said, “ Ab hui hai meri Eid” (Only now is my Eid).

It struck us, that day was real Eid for him. Since childhood, Eid and Diwali are days when people don new clothes. For this person, till midnight of that day, Eid had not happened in his life. This person gets an old second hand coat, which added so much to his life. Even a second hand cloth can mean a lot, if it reaches the right person on time.

(Eid is the day that marks the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting)

EWTT: How can individuals help GOONJ?

Anshu:  Individuals need to spread the word by whatever means they can.

So far we’ve been surviving hand-to-mouth in our operations, sustaining ourselves through the support of individuals, and some payroll giving by corporates. In a sense, we have been comfortable working with insecurities to keep our expenses down as much as possible.  But the time has come in our organisation’s life after 10-11 years, we need to have some mental security that we have these funds for the next couple of years, so we can budget what we want to do.  We’re not in favour of creating a huge corpus. What we need is commitment, so if individuals commit a small amount for one year or two years, we can plan ahead for certain things.

People can also sponsor school materials for children through us. And of course, they can approach us to donate clothes. For people living outside India, people will have to hold it for a few months, we are trying to arrange the mechanics, customs and so on for overseas clothes to be donated. If you are travelling to New Delhi, and if you can bring the clothes with you to our centre, that would be great.

EWTT: What is your dream for the world?

Anshu:  My dream is for each of us to do our part. We are into a certain kind of escapism. We think someone else will fix the problem. We often underestimate our responsibility and capability.  We have to take ownership for our problems. When you can do brilliant work in your professional career or family life, why not do a bit for the society? Why don’t you become a part of it?

When you spend money donating to temples or mosques or on festivals, why don’t you use just a small part of it to needy people directly. God is everywhere.

Many of us have had subsidised university education and gone on to good careers. It’s time to pay back to society and to the villages, what you have enjoyed at the cost of these villages in terms of their very basic requirements.