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The echo has caught on

A simple resolve to provide the poor a piece of used clothing led Anshu Gupta to start Goonj 12 years ago. Today, it is a major channel for optimum utilisation of used products countrywide, writes SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

PHOTO: V.V.KRISHNAN

A VOICE, AN EFFORT Anshu Gupta at the Goonj collection centre in Madanpur Khadar near Sarita Vihar

Anshu Gupta's is a swell of a story. The type that you uncover in, say, magazines like Reader's Digest, and marvel at how one fine idea tied to a never-say-no attitude can really do wonders. His is a story of pure resolve shaking hands with success finally, a vision spreading itself much beyond his primary pledge, touching numerous lives, inducing in them a sense of gratitude and worthiness.

A native of Dehra Dun and now a seasoned Delhiite, Anshu's was a journey to an uncharted ground back in 1998 — that of providing old, discarded clothing of the haves to the have-nots.

Recalling the times over a decade later, he still marvels how a basic need like clothing has not got its due in this country, something that prodded him to think and act. “It is really strange, roti, kapra and makaan have long been a part of our basic needs but somehow, kapra (clothing) has never got its required attention. Clothing is the first sign of poverty yet we have refused to recognise it. So when I thought of working on the idea of collecting old clothes to pass to the poor to bring a difference in their lives, it sounded weird to everyone.” The distinctiveness of his work done through his NGO Goonj brought this former media professional recognition early on and he became a fellow of the prestigious Ashoka Foundation. As work began to grow with likeminded people staffing Goonj, his wife, Meenakshi, quit her job to join him. Today, the number of people and volunteers working for Goonj is sizeable, matching its presence in 21 States with 10 offices and a network of local organisations.

Also, Goonj now not only collects old clothes but old utensils, shoes, toys, books, suitcases, furniture, bags, audio and video cassettes, newspapers, etc. “Drop anything that you don't need at our centres and be sure that somebody somewhere would be using them gainfully,” he says. Recalling a recent incident, Anshu says, “To my horror I saw a poor family in a village keeping salt in an egg shell. Yet another family took my plastic packet of some shop to keep clothes.” Living under leaking roofs, old suitcases are a big draw for them, he says.

When we visit Anshu at his office in Sarita Vihar, it is incidentally its 12th foundation day. Some staffers have written ‘Happy Birthday to Goonj' in bold letters on the notice board. Anshu looks at it, a smile escapes him and he touches his head saying, “Well, I always forget February 18.” In almost like a stocktaking tone, he then states, “Really, all these years, we have not budged from our core focus, that we will not distribute anything to the poor for free simply because it would then not be given with dignity.” This has led Goonj to come up with schemes like ‘Cloth for Work' where people do community service to earn clothes. “In Assam and Bihar recently, villagers built bamboo bridges in their blocks in lieu of clothes. In Bihar they made a 240-foot by 6-foot bridge and all we have spent is Rs.2250 to buy steel wires. Now the villagers can even take motorcycles over it. In Assam, we have electrified an entire village with the help of a discarded generator.”

Anshu is clear about yet another thing: “People don't donate their used things, they just discard. So when I am asked to collect them, I refuse because it is also in their interest to get rid of them.” Countrywide, there are 70 collection centres, 40 of them spread across the NCR, where one can walk in any day. “Big companies, hotels, etc. drop their used things at our door in trucks and vans,” he adds.

We soon follow Anshu to a processing centre of Goonj at the village Madanpur Khadar in South Delhi to get a firsthand feel of how the wheel moves. The sheer variety of used things that people have donated is astonishing. From pins to stilettos to bathroom tiles, from Naipauls' “An Area of Darkness” to a “Lonely Planet Guide on Florida”, from a game of Sudoku to suitcases, washing machines and keyboards and more. Really, one is appalled at the sheer excess of commodities in urban areas.

“We segregate the collected things in a processing centre. We have 10 across the country and this one is the biggest,” says Anshu. The staff mostly comprises poor women from Madanpur Khadar. “About 80 women work here, some are widows, some victims of domestic violence; they are paid Rs.4000 and upwards.”

The processing is pretty thorough. “We try to match the need of a particular community; say in West Bengal, women mostly wear nighties the whole day, so we send nighties there.”

Also, it has an altering unit. “Trousers invariably come without zips, salwars without drawstrings. Then, the waistline of the urban men is generally around 32-36 inches while those in villages are between 28 and 30, so we alter them before dispatching.” Cartons are marked as per the level of damage in the wares. The leftover cotton cloth are made into sanitary napkins for village women and torn jeans and other hard cloth are turned into school bags, skipping ropes, bottle carriers among other knickknacks. Also, A4 size papers used only on one side by companies are made into exercise books for rural children. “If you let go 25 such sheets, it means you have wasted one notebook,” says Anshu.

Never short of ideas, he has put together ‘tent houses' with old utensils for villages too. “All we tell them is to add, say, two more katories, to the kitty, the rest is free. It takes off a lot of load during weddings.” Also, Goonj makes “wedding gifts with fairly new clothes, utensils, etc. for village brides to soften the parents' wedding expenses.”

At the end of the visit, Anshu treats us to tea and crisp mathri taken out of an old Horlicks bottle at a nearby chai shop. Sipping tea, he says, “So many more people can be gainfully employed through this model. We can teach skills to make innovative products, but the Government says NGOs can make profit of only Rs.10 lakhs. Actually you know what, our whole attitude is disgraceful. We want to live but we want the poor to survive.” Indeed.

IDEAS ROLLING

The processing centre of Goonj at the village Madanpur Khadar has a bookstore that sells old books it receives regularly. “These books are not what a rural community needs, so we have started a stall of old books, many of them valuable, to raise funds for Goonj,” says Anshu.

Goonj also makes beautiful household durries, key chains, paper folders, penholders, etc. by weaving reels from discarded audio and video tapes.

Goonj requires volunteers to collect old newspapers which are sold for fundraising.

The sales counter is open from

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on all working days.

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