Work

Clothed in dignity

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on: Sep 12, 2014
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Under Goonj’s cloth-for-work initiative, villagers help build local infrastructure in return for clothes, not cash; the group is now aiding flood relief work in Jammu & Kashmir

When a massive earthquake hit Uttarkashi in October 1991, Anshu Gupta was studying at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi. He bunked classes for a few days and headed to Dehradun, about six hours’ drive from Uttarkashi. As he went around photographing the affected areas, he came across a man who had covered himself with a gunny sack used to transport potatoes.

In tatters, the cover was patched in many places. The man was asking for clothes to protect himself from the cold.

Later that year, in Delhi’s freezing winter, Gupta saw a rickshaw with a board announcing ‘laawaris laash uthane wala’ (transport for unclaimed bodies). The photographer in him made him follow the rickshaw and he saw it stopping near a body. The driver, Habib, took out a two-meter white cloth and wrapped the body. His blind wife, Aamna, helped him load it into the rickshaw and they drove on only to stop at the next body.

Gupta spoke with them and learned that it was their job to collect bodies based on information given by the police, local authorities or even residents.

Gupta spent a week observing them at work, collecting bodies from within a 5km radius of their house. They picked up 10 to12 bodies each day.

Jaadon mein kaam badh jaata hai (Work increases during winters),” Habib told him. “In summer, the number goes down to four or five.” Gupta realised at once that it was not the cold that killed people, but rather the lack of clothes and protection from it.

These incidents left a lasting impression on him. In 1998, Gupta left his job as corporate communications manager at Escorts to work on his idea of using clothes to promote development.

The following year, he and his wife, Meenakshi, began with 67 clothes from their wardrobe to launch the ‘cloth for work’ movement under Goonj (now a registered society).

Dignity first

“We didn’t want to promote yet another charitable organisation as I was keen to focus on rural areas, where dignity is paramount,” says Gupta.

Under Goonj’s cloth-for-work initiative, villagers work on local infrastructure projects in return for clothes instead of cash. “Across the globe, the three basic needs are food, clothes and shelter. Yet, clothing is neither a part of the Millennium Development Goals nor a priority with development agencies,” he rues.

Over the past two years, Goonj has undertaken nearly 1,500 village infrastructure projects, including cleaning of ponds, construction of bridges and repairing schools, among others.

One of its earliest projects involved digging a well in Salidhana village in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district. The only source of water there was a hand pump, which yielded water at a depth of 400 metres but became submerged during rains. Members of Goonj, along with the villagers, dug the well to ensure year-round supply of water.

On average, Goonj provides two pairs of clothes to each member of a family (not more than five members).

“It is a dignified way of giving — people work and people earn. It is changing the age-old, traditional practice of charity as it gives equal respect to the person receiving it,” says Gupta.

Grassroots NGOs have been roped in as partners. “We go to rural areas, sit with partners and villagers, and decide what works are needed. We also decide on the distribution methodology with the local implementing agencies. It is not a top-down approach,” he adds.

Some villagers approach Goonj after hearing about projects in nearby areas. “But in disaster-affected areas, we enter on our own without partners,” says Gupta.

The organisation is currently aiding flood relief work in Jammu and Kashmir. People can donate blankets, woollens, tarpaulin, basic medicines and other materials at Goonj centres, besides making financial contributions.

Collecting goodwill

Goonj has a supply chain system that includes collecting clothes and other material from urban areas, sorting, grading and packing them, and finally dispatching them to rural areas.

Through co-branded campaigns, employees of retail chains and corporates contribute material to Goonj. Additionally, there are collection centres in several cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Rishikesh, Bhubaneswar, Bangalore and Kolkata. Volunteers take care of the collection (the Goonj team is not involved in this process), which happens all year round, says Gupta.

More than half of the 1,000 tonnes of material Goonj collects annually comprises clothes, while the rest is made up of dry rations, stationery and books, computers, furniture, footwear, and even toys and games.

Many hotels and stores send unused items such as soaps, oils and dry eatables.

But more than collection, the real challenge is in the processing.

The collected material is shipped to 21 States, and distributed according to individual needs. A well-defined coding system helps identify the contents of each distribution bag. “We have a detailed system of repairing and using every item. People give what they have and not what others need.” Goonj steps in to bridge this gap.

As urban men, on average, are about six inches wider at the waist than their rural counterparts, Goonj alters clothes accordingly.

Every piece of cloth is judiciously used to ensure there is no wastage. While western outfits like jeans and T-shirts are commonly used by urban women, saris and salwar-suits are needed in rural areas. “We make school bags using old jeans, turn cotton material into sanitary pads… every inch of cloth is turned into something. If nothing, we use it in a quilt.”

Even tapes from old cassettes are reused, for instance, instead of thread in handlooms. This fabric is used to make bags, conference kits, wallets, key chains, phone covers, folders and other products. Sold at prices ranging from ₹25 to ₹600, this revenue is a boon for the not-for-profit enterprise.

Revenue model

“Since we are registered as a society, we get contributions from individuals as well,” says Gupta. Nearly half of its ₹4 crore annual budget is met from contributions, ranging from ₹20 to ₹2 lakh each. Goonj also earns revenues through its co-branded campaigns.

It has strict monitoring systems, including detailed auditing and surprise checks, to ensure partners are fulfilling the mandate. “We try to minimise pilferage,” he says.

From a two-people effort, Goonj today has over 180 full-time members across 10 offices. From 150 tonnes in 2005, it today collects over 1,000 tonnes of material annually. But Gupta doesn’t count his achievements in these terms. He wants to inspire similar efforts. “We have to grow as an idea and not just as an organisation. Others should take initiatives and not go through the same hardships as we did,” he adds.

Published on September 12, 2014

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