In Delhi’s freezing winter in 1991, Anshu Gupta saw a rickshaw puller wrapping unclaimed dead bodies on the capital’s roads in white cloth. The rickshaw puller told him that the numbers increased to 12-13 bodies per day during winters. Gupta realised it wasn’t cold but lack of clothes that killed people. Seven years later, he gave up his corporate job, and along with wife Meenakshi, launched the ‘cloth for work’ (now ‘dignity for work’) movement under Goonj (a registered society). Annually, NGO Goonj works on nearly 10,000 projects on infrastructure, sanitisation, water conservation etc. with the involvement of local communities, who in return get clothes, stationery, ration and other materials they require. During COVID, Goonj began work with the most marginalised communities including lepers, sex workers, transgenders and devadasis. Goonj is also one of the recipients of MacKenzie Scott’s $2.7 billion donations announced in June 2021. Gupta, winner of Ramon Magsaysay and many others awards, talks about the journey of Goonj across 27 states, working amid COVID19, learning, growing, adapting and more in a free-wheeling interview with Rashmi Pratap:
1. You and your wife Meenakshi, also co-founder of Goonj, began with 67 clothes in your wardrobe to launch the ‘cloth for work’ movement under Goonj in 1999. How has Goonj evolved in the last 22 years?
We have been learning throughout and evolved in terms of ideas and skills. We have our footprints in parts of 27 states with a thousand plus people working together. A big part of what we do is utilizing the city’s underutilised material; we work in thousands of villages where these materials become a resource. It is a parallel currency -- the economy is not just cash-based, it is also dignified giving. We, as an institution, believe that charity cannot solve the problem. While the language has evolved over time, the basic values remain the same.
2. How many infrastructure projects has Goonj undertaken so far?
We reach out to a few thousand villages and carry around 10,000 projects on infrastructure, sanitisation, water conservation, etc. This is not something you will do for some time and leave; community members and important stakeholders become a part of it and it happens over a period of time.
3. In which sector have you done the maximum work?
Maximum work has been done in changing the language and lenses around development -- how do you see people? Do you see yourself as a donor and someone else as a beneficiary or you come out of all these demeaning words and try to be a stakeholder because if your basics are clear and you value every human being for what they are then water and sanitization work is just a growing number.
Water has been one of the major areas for us apart from infrastructure in terms of roads and bridges.
The most important work we do is towards water -- not just drinking water but making sure that there is enough for agriculture.
There are a lot of schemes to provide drinking water; whether they all are working or not is a different question, but we need more water for agriculture. If you want to solve the problem of education in some areas you cannot solve it by distributing pencils, erasers or by arranging e-classes. You will have to go and work on the water for the village so that people don't migrate and then you will be able to make a dent.
Water has become the core of the issues in our opinion, whether you don't have it or you have an excess of it in terms of floods and all other kinds of disasters. How we deal with it is a better way to make life better and impact other initiatives.
4. How is Goonj’s ‘dignity for work’ a better approach than the traditional concept of charity?
Many of us claim that we are dignifying people but who are we to give dignity to someone? Everyone is born with dignity, whether you are the so-called upper caste or lower caste. Unknowingly, we take away dignity and every disaster is proof of that.
When we go to the market, a sanitary pad is wrapped in a newspaper or given in a black bag but when we give it for a social cause we take a picture with it and also post it on our social media.
Charity is the favourite subject of the doer but have we ever imagined ourselves at the receiving end? Do we ask the receiver whether they really like it or not? When a large number of people were walking on the road last year, they did not want to show their faces because these are very proud citizens. The disaster forced them to be on the road and accept whatever was coming to survive; they never wanted to become a part of those pictures. They were eating once or twice a day but they never asked anyone for food.
We never believe in charity; instant charity is good as it solves a lot of problems but it should not be continued. In 1999, when we started working in a slum in Sarita Vihar, Delhi -- now that slum has transitioned into a flyover -- we were arranging for clothes and we were also trying to clean the park which was basically a dump yard.
We did not call it ‘cloth for work’ or ‘dignity for work’. We just decided to clean the area and over time it evolved into ‘cloth for work’ and later ‘dignity for work’. However, our work is not just limited to cloth; we deal with a lot of other materials like utensils, footwear, paints, doors, windows and anything that can be reused.
5. Starting from Delhi, how did Goonj reach pan India?
The country is huge, it is difficult to claim that we have reached pan India. So I say we have reached parts of 27 states and not 27 states. In a lifetime, practically, we will be able to reach a small number of the wide population. However, the idea can always reach more people.
A few years back, in cities like Delhi, we were the only ones talking about woollens and clothing during winters. This space is now so crowded that we are not even required there anymore and this is a happy sign. We were the first institution that started talking about menstrual hygiene and made it a public subject; and people say - we were the first to organise collection camps in non-disaster times also. Now, this is becoming a culture. We all learn from each other and whatever good we see in society, many of us pick up the idea.
If we want to reach some remote part of Maharashtra, will I create my own team only or will I go and respect the local institution that understands the geography, topography and political conditions of that area better and work together?
It's not that we were acceptable right from the beginning. We were talking in a different language and were also challenging some traditional thoughts like we have been questioning how long the world will sell poverty to remove poverty? The community that often receives TV and ration free of cost, we went to them and said we would do the work and then people would receive clothes or whatever. A lot of institutions were dependent on funding. We were providing much bigger support.
They are treated as charitable objects.
6. How did COVID change Goonj’s implementation model? What new approaches/strategies did you adopt to meet a challenge of this magnitude?
We said the old model will not work as it is for the time being , as city centres are closed and people could not come to offices. Even during the first lockdown, we got permission but very few people were able to come out during those restrictions. We said clothing and second-hand goods will not work as there wasn’t any way we could collect and segregate them. Now the need is for food and medical attention. We mapped which are the systems that will work because we didn’t have time for the typical way of creating partnerships after visiting the field only.
Dealing with material and very minute things is our strength. It is logistics, packaging, reaching the remotest areas, dealing with products, and building trust in both urban and rural areas.
We don't use the term capacity-building but in the last 2-3 years, small institutions have built up their capacity by working with smaller traders and villagers for the procurement so that money goes into the villages and smaller areas and not to the big traders.
This was absolutely new for us but we realised that to support the rural economy we need to buy directly from the farmers. Who is telling you that you only need to distribute pulses to the people? A kit can be made of 10 kg of vegetables and fruits also. We buy it at the market price so that people get good money and they can do more work in the times to come. That is how the model worked.
During the second wave, it was much easier for us as the processes were in place and some people became masters of buying vegetables; although this time a lot in the team suffered with the infection too.
7. Goonj is one of the recipients of MacKenzie Scott’s $2.7 billion donations announced last month. One, how does it feel to be recognized for your work? And two, how does Goonj plan to utilize the fund?
Goonj is one of the 14 organisations in India to have received funding and most of them have got between 1 and 5 million dollars. Some have got much larger amounts.
Once the announcement was made, I started getting a lot of messages from everywhere then you go back and try to read and then you realise OK, it was something.
It is certainly a recognition and this is tag free money – means no compulsion of geography or time. We have not decided how we will be spending it because things have been changing rapidly in the last few months. We have also scaled up and a part of the funding will be used for technology inputs and other areas where we never got a chance to invest money.
We think of a community or institution as small or big on the basis of a balance sheet. We never analyse an institution on the basis of their reach -- how deep they can go, what changes they are bringing, the number of people they are impacting. A large number of these institutions are big because their impact is huge even though their balance sheet is small. We reach out to these institutions more because we know that they are interacting with the grassroots.
8. What next for Goonj?
We have seen people spend millions creating Excel sheets as to where they will be in the next five to 10 years and I don't know where all these Excel sheets were when a virus impacted the entire world. It's not like we have done everything. But these 15-16 months have given us a lot of chances to learn.
These are the people who are already marginalised and we need to work towards providing them with a dignified life. With the virus, lockdown and economic problems, even people who belonged to a financially stable background are suffering and have become marginalised. So these verticals have been pushed down further. This work has really been fulfilling for us as our lenses were not deep enough to see that every community is different.
When any disaster happens, large institutions working with these communities channelize their sources to other causes such as hunger issues or oxygen crises but most of these people are completely dependent on these organisations and even they are affected by hunger issues and oxygen crises.
I have seen organisations not being able to pay their teams even the basics and this means not only the teams but the communities will suffer in a big way.
These people didn't have access to cotton bandages or ointments, which are the basic requirement, and due to this, the disease was increasing. The markets were closed and other people would not touch their wounds and then you show up with food packets. But the demand is different.
In the last two years, Covid has been the only recognised disease; I don't know what has happened to all the other diseases like cancer or heart problems. These are the missing things and that’s what we have learnt and we have a long way to go.
For the sake of being hopeful, let's be hopeful because that's how we operate. So let's do what we can do. We will scale up, work with new people. It is our way to evolve and not stick to the same models, especially the negotiable ones. This phase will also tell a lot of people that this (Goonj) is a model that can be replicated.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)