Shifting the focus
they came up with the name for their charity – Goonj – which means ‘echo’ in Hindi. “Like a ‘goonj’ we wanted the idea to spread across the world,’’ he says.
Anshu started by rummaging through his own wardrobe to find clothes he and his wife no longer needed. He found tops, trousers, dresses and sweaters, which he distributed to the homeless on the streets. He asked his friends and family to do the same and slowly his initiative began to echo around the city, then the state, then the country.
More and more people joined in and soon Anshu had to set aside part of a room in his house to store all the clothes. And within five years he had to set up an office and a warehouse to store them.
Anshu’s entrepreneurial zeal didn’t allow him just to implement the idea and move on – he and Meenakshi kept evolving it to overcome problems and take advantage as new opportunities arose.
The role of dignity
Anshu believes that clothes are more than just a means to protect a person from the elements. “Clothes mean dignity,’’ he says. “A poor person might be able to get food one way or the other, but clothes are the last thing on people’s minds when it comes to donating to charity.
“We think of clothes only when a natural disaster befalls us or when you are moved to see a child or an elderly person shivering in the cold. Why is a basic need treated as relief material during disasters?”
Anshu’s idea was to treat the issue as a ‘nonnatural, perpetual disaster’. And he wanted to make sure the clothes were distributed in a way that didn’t humiliate the recipients.
“I’ve often noticed that relief assistance to the needy is distributed in a way that degrades people,” he says.
He cites the example of the 1991 earthquake in Uttarkashi, in northern India, when villagers who were affected were thrown bundles of clothing from a truck that was racing down the road. The people providing the aid, in their haste to cover as much ground as possible in a short time, had not taken into account that the mode of distributing the clothes was perhaps as important as the aid itself.
“When I spoke to the affected people, I realised that their pride had been hurt. They were extremely upset by the way they were treated as tramps or beggars. Remember, they were people who were unfortunate to have lost everything in a natural disaster. Even though they didn’t have any clothes, they had dignity. So, most chose to dress in potato sacks rather than suffer the indignity of being considered as beggars.’’ Anshu also found that the clothes that were being handed out were not suitable. While many of the people were very traditional, the clothes they received were high-fashion items and totally unsuited to the weather conditions there.
“Unfortunately, the biggest problem with donations is that you give what you have,” he says. “You often don’t give what people need. Somewhere we need to dignify giving by shifting the focus from donor’s pride to receiver’s dignity.”
Anshu did a quick, informal study of a village in northern India and found that in many cases, poor people were happy to work and earn a living rather than beg for things.
“Clothes, I realised, could be a valuable currency to be traded to improve the lives of people in many parts of the world,’’ he says. After brainstorming with Meenakshi, he came up with a project he called Cloth forWork.
“It is one of the most important projects that Goonj operates,’’ he says. “We are creating a parallel economy through the programme. When we talk about development, or the economy, we talk about money as the only currency. But we can use clothing as currency. In the Cloth ForWork scheme, work done by the villagers is paid for in clothes or other materials they need.”
The work benefits both the worker as well as his village. For instance, a vital bridge that had been washed away years ago was rebuilt by villagers under the ‘Cloth ForWork’ scheme in Sukhasan, in Bihar state.
“People had been taking a circuitous route walking 10 kilometres to get to the other side,” says Anshu. He and a small group of volunteers visited the village and found that a new rudimentary bridge could be built.
He spoke to the village elders who quickly got together a group of people to start working on