Meet The Man Who Has Changed The Way We Look at Giving
Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and founder of Goonj, Anshu Gupta, has challenged the existing notions of charity by relying on shramdaan (voluntary labour) and the goodwill of the people
In the early ’90s, Anshu Gupta, then a young freelance journalist, used to roam the streets of Delhi in search of stories of people who remained invisible. This is when he met Habib bhai, a middle-aged man who lived on the pavement outside Delhi’s LNJP Hospital and delivered unclaimed dead bodies to the police. His cart was a moving advertisement for his work—‘laawaris laash uthaane wala’ scribbled on it. Habib bhai got paid Rs 20 and some cloth for every dead body he handed over to the police. The winter months were busy, Habib bhai had said matter-of-factly. After all, many more homeless people died in the bitter Delhi cold—sometimes up to 10 to 12 a day.
Gupta followed him around for a whole week to understand what it meant to be a bearer of unclaimed corpses. His middle-class notions about the boundaries of what was human were shaken, but not shattered—until he met six-year-old Bano, Habib bhai’s daughter. “When it gets too cold, I go to sleep hugging dead bodies,” she had said with a bland expression. “It keeps me warm, and the best part is, dead people do not move—you get to sleep peacefully.”
Trained to be a journalist, Gupta never quite forgot what he saw and heard during his week with Habib bhai—the heart-wrenching struggles of the dispossessed for daily survival. It was often not the cold but the inadequate clothing that triggered the needless loss of lives.
In 1991, following an earthquake, Gupta travelled to Uttarkashi to do relief work. A college student at the time, he had met an old man who left an impression on him. Despite the variety of relief items being donated to the victims, this man desired only clothing. It was obvious that his need for clothing was as much about protection as it was about dignity. Since then, each time Gupta encountered a needy person, he noticed if their clothing was adequate. If you find that a person does not have enough to cover themselves, it probably means they are starved for every other basic need, including food, Gupta realized. “Roti, kapda, makaan (food, clothes and shelter) are the basic needs in India, but clothing has never got the attention it deserves,” he says.
This was to become the bedrock of his work with Goonj, a non-profit he launched with his wife Meenakshi in 1999. Starting with 67 garments they first collected and the humble beginnings in their own home in Delhi’s Sarita Vihar, the Guptas built an organization that has today spread to around 4,000 villages across 23 states, and employs 900 staff members. Goonj uses underutilized and excess urban household material—around 4,000 tons so far—as a tool for rural development. “Goonj aims to bring an equitable relationship of strength, sustenance and dignity between the cities and villages,” says Meenakshi.
With his work, Gupta, 48, has challenged the existing notions of charity. “Wealthy donors have the arrogance of deciding their beneficiaries’ needs, while keeping themselves at the centre of it all. Our effort is to break this power structure,” says Gupta. In the Cloth for Work (CFW) programme, the Goonj team goes into a village and through discussions with the community, facilitates the process of identifying their priorities—whether it is a source of clean drinking water, a pukka road or a high-school for the village children. The community creates a blueprint and executes it as a collective—Goonj has no role other than facilitation and ensuring that the labour is compensated.
“In India shramdaan (voluntary labour) and the barter economy have been valued for centuries. We have tried to revive them and make sure that labour is compensated with items of everyday use,” says Gupta. The idea, he explains, is to leverage the strength of the people, their ideas and traditional wisdom, toil, local resources and knowhow. “In the current paradigm of charity, donors tend to exploit communities for their own schemes, ignoring their welfare. We want to change this,” adds Gupta.
The Goonj team ensures that the community receives unutilized materials collected from city dwellers. Visiting their sorting and cleaning facility in south Delhi, the RD team was able to witness the concern and care with which discarded items are restored and made usable. “Someone who is impoverished and hungry also has no access to health and sanitation,” says Gupta. Hence 50 lakh MyPads—sanitary napkins made from clean discarded cloth—form a key element of Goonj’s work, and, along with books and medicines, have become tools for empowerment.
With dignity and power to the people as cornerstones, Gupta is creating a new paradigm of giving. As extreme weather events grow more frequent, Goonj has created a disaster-relief fund, working in different states. Creating tremendous goodwill wherever it has worked, Goonj has had the support of individuals and governments. It works with government institutions, but does not accept financial aid. Even though the Goonj annual budget is currently Rs 25 crores, half of it comes from individuals.
Gupta has been widely recognized for creating a new model of development and received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2015. When he looks back at his work, does he feel pride and satisfaction? “Yes, but given the state of the world, the disregard for human rights, the tyranny against Dalits and minorities, it is hard not to feel despair,” he says. “We are hopeful because we are made that way, but with 3 lakh farmers having committed suicide in the past 20 years, it’s difficult to remain so.”
You would never guess it, though, if you were to see Anshu and Meenakshi Gupta at work. They go on, every single day, believing in the power of the individual. That is where they draw their sustenance. It is for this reason that they have created a fellowship that can nurture and inspire youngsters to give back. “I am just grateful for what I have and mindful of the privileges we enjoy in the big cities. All of us must do our bit to give back, and remember that none of us are doing anyone a favour by doing so,” says Gupta.