True News|Feb 22, 2010 2:48 PM| by:

A Clothes-line from Cities to the Country

Drought in some parts of the country, notably Rajasthan and Gujarat, made big news in the months preceding the monsoon. Media was busy in reporting the gruesome picture of the first drought of the

The three essentials of life as per the popular chant, are food, shelter and clothing. Take a closer look though, at the order: without the first, one may survive a day or two, without the second, several, but without the third, we can barely cope with life for an hour. The poor’s anxiety about clothes is not easily imagined by most of us who take them for granted.

Anshu Gupta’s organisation Goonj in New Delhi, has for over a decade now been doing what seems simplistic at first: collecting clothes and distributing them. But he has in fact pioneered a robust reuse model for all manner of things that a city discards but the poor need. He has raised awareness and confidence among givers that what they part with will be handled with care and targeted precisely according to needs. In fact his programme has donors getting involved in collecting, sorting and distributing. He is now scaling up operations all over the country, using a proven system developed over the years.

Anshu says that during disasters like floods, earthquakes and the recent tsunami, people are roused and the first thing they think of as a gesture, is to give away surplus clothes. When the crisis has passed, with their consciences assuaged, they switch off. But the need for clothes is ongoing and steady. Also, during crises, clothes are dumped on receivers with scarcely a thought, whereas the poor deserve some dignity built into what they receive. Goonj addresses both these issues: its programme is year round, and deeply sensitive to receivers’ needs.

Anshu gained his sensitivity from being one of four children in a family that barely had enough. His father was in the military and was posted all over the country. Anshu not only felt want but saw it all around him, all over the country. As a student he had camped in Uttarkashi during the earthquake there in 1991. Education lifted him. He studied economics and communications and found gainful employment in the corporate world. In 1998, memories of want welled up in him, and he left his job at Escorts as its corporate communications officer. Goonj [’a voice’], came into being the same year, with his wife offering to support the family.

There are three links in the Goonj chain: collection, processing and distribution. To collect clothes, Goonj organises neighbourhood days. On these, apartment residents come together after word of mouth publicity, triggered by one or two Goonj volunteers. Clothes are collected and taken to Goonj’s sorting centre.

At the centre, volunteers and paid workers begin the most sensitive part of the whole programme. They work to cater to lists of requirements sent in by about 65 grassroots organisations throughout the country. These organisations have evaluated their needs based on gender ratio, weather, cultural issues, age groups etc. This focus on precise needs, is perhaps what distinguishes the Goonj programme from similar efforts.

Garments and linen are inspected for cleanliness, washed or repaired where necessary, folded with care, slotted to various destinations and packed in clean sacks. Goonj does not accept or distribute undergarments like bras, panties and briefs, as these have the potential to hurt recipients’ self-esteem.

Unusable or rejected pieces are further processed to create saleable articles that fund Goonj’s operations. The most popular is the door mat, made of twisted rag strips, hand-sewn together. They raise funds in other ways as well. They also make rag-quilts, bags of all kinds. At collection camps, donors often get pumped up enough to bring in old newspapers and bottles which are sold, with proceeds to Goonj. Companies let Goonj carry away heaps of discarded xerox copies. Goonj brings them over and pounces on the blank-side. They make note pads out of them for sale. Goonj has never bought paper for correspondence or promotions. It uses only discarded one-side unused paper. That alone speaks for Anshu Gupta’s integrity as a reuse man.

Thoughts of fund needs have not stopped him. An Ashoka fellowship that came some years ago—after 5 years of work without returns—has taken care of his personal needs. The economist in him now imagines a sustainable plan. If they handle 3 million pieces per year, the total processing cost per piece would be just Rs.0.97. If either the donor subsidised with a rupee each or the recipient paid it, they would be free of fund worries.

Goonj has now begun the ‘School to School Programme’ which seeks to channel city children’s old books, lunch boxes, water bottles, uniforms shoes and so on to rural children. There is also their winter-watch, when Goonj volunteers patrol Delhi’s streets to give away warm blankets to shivering poor.

Anshu Gupta is that kind of Indian who combines sensitivity, risk-taking and commitment. That probably comes out of having seen endemic horrors that are part of poor households.  He says: “Do you know what poor Indian women go through, in coping with their menstrual periods? They are presumed dirty and are quarantined. There is no concern for their hygiene. They use any rag to dry themselves- it’s usually a dirty rag. They get infected, often the low-grade kind, not quite the killer variety.  They exist with it, in the background, not quite dead but barely living.”

Goonj deserves your attention and support for this single product it makes: usable material is salvaged from the discards, long palm-wide, 2 feet long strips are readied, strings are tailored in, that can go around most Indian women’s waist and be tied. These are then washed, folded and packed with care. India’s own sanitary napkins by the thousands are now ready for distribution. You don’t often get a more personalised, targeted-at-the-last-person dedication in social service.
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