The phrase “give the shirt off one’s back” takes a whole new meaning using the lens of 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Anshu Gupta. Through his groundbreaking organization, Goonj, he has literally changed India’s paradigm of giving and has restored the dignity of the receiver. All this through the power of giving the shirt off one’s back.
An old man who died of Delhi’s winter cold because he was clothed only in a thin cotton shirt. A six-year-old girl who stripped corpses of their clothes and embraced those corpses to keep warm while she slept. Although he had himself experienced hardship, Anshu Gupta was shaken to his core by this encounter with the poorest of the poor when, as a student of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, he accompanied a body collector gathering corpses for Delhi’s cremation grounds.
The images never left him even as he stepped onto the career track after acquiring his undergraduate degree in journalism plus master’s degrees in journalism and economics. They remained in his consciousness when he worked, first as a copywriter in an advertising agency, then in the government sector and later as a corporate communications manager in the private sector.
Gupta describes it as being bothered by a keeda, a restless worm that gnawed at his consciousness of the vast gap between the desperately poor, especially in the rural areas, and the rising middle class and the wealthy in the cities. This keeda eventually compelled him to give up his corporate life and devote his time, energy and knowledge to serving the victims of such inequality. In 1999 he left his corporate life and, together with his wife Meenakshi, a former journalist, founded Goonj.
The entry point would be an essential, but often overlooked, item—clothing. It would serve as a bridge between the consumerist middle class, for whom a piece of clothing could be bought without a second thought, and the rural poor, for whom the purchase of clothing could mean a missed meal, a child skipping school, or going deeper into debt. The first resources of Goonj would consist of 67 pieces of clothing donated by Gupta and Meenakshi.
Gupta would bring a specific viewpoint to Goonj. He insisted that its focus would be on the dignity of the recipient, rather than on the pride of the donor over his generosity.
The necessity of self-respect was a lesson he learned early in life. When he was fourteen, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. His middle class family’s finances were sharply reduced practically overnight and Gupta, the eldest of four children, found himself managing the family’s meager resources. Even at that young age, he was determined that the family would remain independent and self-reliant despite their tight finances.
More trouble followed. During his 12th year standard, equivalent to junior college, Gupta almost died in a road accident. This resulted in a year-long convalescence. Still, the confinement in bed did not result in idleness and despondency. Gupta used that time to read, to think, and to write articles for the newspapers to supplement the family’s income. Determined to take his 12th year standard examinations, he left his bed, against doctor’s advice, walking in pain, without crutches, because he did not want to be pitied.
Neither did he want the poor to be pitied. Charity, he felt, stripped people of self-respect. The poor would be involved in identifying the needs of their communities and in the actual work of recycling and reprocessing the donated and discarded clothes into usable goods. Although it would be unrealistic to expect the poor to pay for the clothes they received, Gupta decided that there would be no handouts. Instead there would be work for clothes— recipients would pay for the materials in the form of work in the processing centers or community projects.
Goonj became prominent in public consciousness in 2004. On December 26 of that year, a massive Indian Ocean earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in history, created a massive tsunami that hit Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. In Tamil Nadu, whose coastline was hit by the tsunami, tons of donated clothes piled up in warehouses.
Goonj got 100 truckloads of the waste materials, and, under an initiative called Not Just a Piece of Cloth, recycled them into goods that the poor could use.
Discarded, unusual clothes were cleaned and recycled them into sanitary pads, a basic but neglected item for poor Indian women, who could not afford to buy commercial sanitary napkins. Old t-shirts were recycled into undergarments. These items became the starting point for Goonj to teach rural Indian women lessons in hygiene.
In 2008 floods in the eastern state of Bihar led to widespread dislocation of families. Children were especially affected. Goonj launched a program called Chehak. It set up children’s centers and solicited toys, clothes, reading material, stationery for these children. This was expanded to a program called Waapasi, in which barbers given kits were asked to cut the hair of children at the Chehak centers for free as payback for their kits. Recipients of carpentry kits were asked to make tables and chairs for the Chehak centers. Recipients of rickshaws and handcarts were asked to pay 15 rupees a day for a year to a fund to support the teachers at the Chehak centers.
Prior to Goonj, Indian giving was disaster-driven, hence sporadic and unsystematic, with a mismatch between the donations and the actual needs of the poor. Goonj set up processing centers, manned by volunteers and the poor beneficiaries themselves, to convert donated clothes and other goods into useable items needed by the poor. Nothing is wasted. Zippers and buttons are stripped from unusable material and used to refurbish other clothes and school bags. Every last scrap of waste cloth goes to stuff mattresses and padding for baby beds to ward off the winter cold.
Just as important, Gupta has also transformed the culture of giving from randomness and disorganization into a coherent and integrated system of collection, recycling and distribution, in the process educating both the givers and the beneficiaries. Through scheduled theme-based collection drives, donors were educated in the actual needs of the poor and appropriate giving. The beneficiaries, in turn, gained essential knowledge in health and hygiene, and, through actual work in the processing centers and on community projects, retained their self-respect as productive members of society.
Gupta built up a collection system based in residents’ associations, schools and community centers. He also created a network of partners—professionals who have joined Goonj, corporations who have sponsored collection drives on their premises, citizens’ organizations, garment exporters who have surplus stocks, long-distance carriers who give preferential rates for the transportation of goods, and even army regiments for the delivery of items to remote areas.
Today, Goonj handles over a million kilos of materials, operates in more than ten cities, coordinates a network of collection, processing and distribution centers, and has affected the lives of millions—a far cry, indeed, from its modest start with 67 pieces of clothing coming from Gupta’s and Meenakshi’s closets.