• Ashwathi Muraleedharan

The Reverberating Goonj of Dignified Living

As a privileged child from an upper middle-class background, I never really struggled with the basic necessities of life like most of the people reading this. My parents gave me enough of everything for me to know that I was loved and cared for. During one such phase was when my brother’s friends told me about Goonj. His friends came home excitedly to tell me that there is an organization that works towards utilizing the urban discards as the means to provide a dignified living to the poor. I remember thinking to myself if my contribution would suffice. But then I saw our used clothes being collected to our neighborhood Goonj center and later was told that it was distributed in a village on the outskirts of Delhi during the harsh Delhi winters. However, the critical point was the knowledge that instead of doling those pieces of clothing as an act of charity, those people were given the same as a reward for their labor and efforts towards certain goals they had to meet for the betterment of their community. This allowed the people to preserve their dignity and self-respect because they had earned that reward.

Cut to 2020, when I was asked to write about Mr. Anshu Gupta for this article, I happily obliged because I have been following the work of Goonj for over 2 decades now. The work curve of Mr. Gupta has been commendable especially with achievements such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2015. His ideas are unique in the context of placing empathy and connecting with people above everything else. He took something as simple yet basic as clothing and transformed that into a tool of empowerment for hundreds of communities across the country. 

Born and raised in a middle-class family, Anshu Gupta spent a chunk of his childhood in the remote areas of Uttarakhand where he did his post-graduation in Economics and further went on to do a double PG Diploma in Mass Communication from IIMC. His corporate life, although very rewarding, did not appeal to him much. Around the same time, with the advent of ever increasing harsh winters, he noticed that lack of clothing is a widespread issue, one that equates the winter season to a disaster. Yet, clothing never found a place in the development agenda of any government. According to him, “choosing cloth as an entry point for giving was a result of his realization that a person’s dignity is important even if it is a matter of survival against natural occurrences like rains, flood and cold.” And this is how Goonj was conceptualized-the first organization to focus on clothing as a basic unaddressed but fundamental right of every human being and thus, repositioned discards of urban households as a developmental resource for the villages.  His vision was supported by his wife, Meenakshi Gupta, who went on to become not just his business partner but also his life partner. Now over the last 16 years, Goonj has turned massive disaster waste into resource for development work right from the 2002 Gujarat earthquake, 2004 tsunami, 2008 Bihar floods, and the 2013 Uttarakhand floods.

Every social entrepreneur has a key moment that makes him/her reinforce the faith in their life’s purpose. For Mr. Gupta, it was his experience with the flood relief efforts in his home ground, Uttarakhand, after the devastating floods affected and displaced hundreds of people and made him come in contact with the magnitude of problems faced by the country’s rural masses. 

In social work, we have a value that states that “every individual has a dignity that must be secured whenever we interact with them”. It goes without saying that with the introduction of innovative initiatives such as “Cloth for Work” (CFW) and “Not Just a Piece of Cloth” (NJPC), Goonj, under the leadership of Mr. Anshu Gupta and his wife, Ms. Meenakshi Gupta, has managed to envisage communities that use local resources and their own wisdom to support their people’s sanitation, education, health, environment, infrastructure, and other needs. The flagship project of ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ was Ms. Meenakshi’s passion towards the voiceless women communities that are often neglected in the throes of rampant rural problems, menstrual hygiene being one of them. Needless to say, this story has two unsung heroes: Mr. Anshu Gupta and his wife, Ms. Meenakshi Gupta. 

Hopefully, in the times to come, with the passion and compassion like that of these two heroes, we can hear more such stories of resounding success and perhaps even close the growing gap between urban prosperity and rural poverty. 


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