Shift­ing the fo­cus

Friday - - Society -

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

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