Cities & Architecture

Clothing Rural Indians in Urban Excess

Anshu Gupta’s fresh thinking not only highlighted the need for clothing to be a part of the development agenda but also helped create a resource out of what city dwellers discard

Anshu Gupta and wife Meenakshi celebrate with colleagues from his NGO, Goonj, after he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award  on Wednesday.  Credit: PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla

Anshu Gupta and wife Meenakshi celebrate with colleagues from his NGO, Goonj, after he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award on Wednesday. Credit: PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla

 “Roti, kapda aur makaan.”

Those who grew up in Indira’s India (in the 1960s and ’70s) know well how this catchy string of words once held out so much hope to so many poor Indians. The dream was sold by Mrs. Gandhi and her Congress party – and later followed by others – mostly to rural impoverished voters, that they would make possible a day when the basics would be in place in this country – food, clothing and shelter.

Born in 1970 in Meerut and raised in Dehra Dun, Anshu Gupta – who won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for 2015 along with bureaucrat-whistleblower Sanjiv Chaturvedi – was well aware of how those hackneyed words had turned into a pipe dream for the poor.

In the years that followed, some governmental attempts were made to address the issues of food and shelter. “But somehow, the need for kapda has been forgotten. Though clothes are the first sign of poverty, we have just refused to recognise it,” he pointed out in a 2011 interview to this correspondent.

So when in 1999, Gupta, then a media professional, began talking about clothing the poor with dignity and making a difference in their lives through his NGO Goonj – the reason why the prestigious ‘Asian Nobel’ has been awarded to him today – people found the idea weird.

He, however, continued on his mission of collecting old clothes from urban India and supplying them to the rural poor. The number of people working with him only grew (it is now 300 plus) and his wife too joined him soon. Goonj tied up with local organisations in various states to help reach out to the needy. The initial channel that took only clothes to rural India widened over the years to include a wide gamut of other used things of daily use such as utensils, books, stationery, shoes, toys, furniture, furnishings, suitcases, bags, et al.

A visit to Goonj’s processing centre in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar only evokes admiration for Gupta’s lateral thinking, vision and drive. About 80 women employees gathered from the area can be seen making the initial segregation of heaps of used clothes and things and dropping them in big cartons. The sheer variety of the things that comprised those heaps is mind blowing. From needles to pins to old stilettos to bathroom tiles, washing machines, computer keyboards, board games, audio and video cassettes, suitcases, newspapers and bags, the list is endless. And so many old books! From Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness to the Lonely Planet Guide to Florida, one can spot quite an assortment.

The specific cartons go to specific corners thereafter. Clothes that need re-sizing, or fixing with new zips and buttons go to an altering unit; utensils that could make a kitchen or dinner set are clubbed together along with bed sheets and bedcovers and saris and salwar kameezes in fairly better condition than the rest to make up a possible wedding package for a poor bride. Old toys and shoes are separated as per age and size; zips of suitcases and bags go for a check and are kept ready for despatch. Clothes which are torn and of no use are made into sanitary pads to be sent to villages and slums. In fact, Goonj is the first to think of this solution through its initiative Not Just a Piece of Cloth.

Besides, old audio and video cassettes that are of no use otherwise are also put to use at the centre. The reels are used along with thread and wool to weave patches of textiles used to make attractive bags, key chains, dhurries, pen holders, etc. to be sold in a small shop put up at the centre to raise funds. The books that can’t be sent out are neatly put together in a room and turned into a reference library for visitors.

The reason why things that are of no use to the rural poor also land up at the Goonj collection centres, says Gupta, is because people don’t donate their used things, they just discard them. “So when I am asked to collect them, I refuse because their interest is only to get rid of them,” said Gupta.

Therein comes his core focus: We will not distribute anything to the poor for free simply because it would then not be given with dignity. This led Goonj to introduce the scheme Cloth for Work where people are asked to do community service to earn clothes. During my conversation with him, he talked about how in Assam, villagers built bamboo bridges in their blocks for clothes. And in Bihar, they made a foot bridge in lieu of clothes. With the help of a discarded generator, Goonj had helped provide power to an entire village in Assam. Through its presence now in 21 states with work spread across 10 offices and collaborations with 250 local organisations, hundreds of such stories of success directly related to rural development and infrastructure have been added to the list. It also reaches out to natural calamity-hit areas through its relief and rehabilitation initiative, Rahat.

Today, as the world stops to acknowledge Gupta’s achievements and shower accolades on him, the man of the moment says “Goonj helped highlight a basic need that remained unaddressed and which deserves a place in the development agenda.”

  • NARENDRA M APTE

    I am indeed so ashamed to say that till yesterday I had not heard about GOONJ and Mr. Anshu Gupta. It is because of work done by individuals like him and organization promoted by them that people from rural areas can hope to survive in this otherwise unfriendly world.