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Anshu Gupta, Goonj
The Mission: Collecting clothes and other items for needy rural folk.
The Benefits: Poor villagers do development work in return for clothes.
Clothes For Work
Anshu Gupta collects clothes for the needy and gives them a lifeline.

It was while working on a story about Habib, the professional ‘unclaimed body collector’, that the idea struck him with gale force. Out on a bitterly cold December night with Habib, to collect an unidentified body at Khooni Darwaza, near Delhi Gate, the importance of clothing came out rather starkly. Even on that freezing night, the body was clothed in just a thin cotton shirt but was clutching a packet of food.

Goonj sends clothes anywhere in India within 97 paisa, which includes cost of collection, sorting, packing, transport and distribution.
Surely,thought Anshu Gupta, former journalist and founder-director of non-profit organisation, Delhi-based Goonj, he couldn’t have died of hunger, only of cold.

Thus began a “movement”, as he likes to describe his brainchild, “not just to make clothing a basic need of the poor, but also to add dignity to it and turn it into a resource for development.” Thus, his mission began with the task of collecting excess and unused clothes from well-off, urban households and distributing them among the poor across the country. Today, it has gone much beyond clothes to include all urban wastage—shoes, books, utensils and uniforms, among other things, which can be used by rural folk.

The modus operandi is simple. Sourcing of clothes and other articles takes place through camps in neighbourhoods with the help of resident welfare associations, schools, corporate offices and local communities. People are informed about these camps in advance, and are asked to deposit their items at these centres. From there the goods are taken to various collection centres (there are about 30 in Delhi and 15 in Mumbai), which are mostly houses of Goonj volunteers.

And before these materials are packed off to the intended beneficiaries, it is brought to a central storehouse for inspection and sorting. The items are sorted into various verticals like children’s clothes, women’s clothes, shoes and bags, among other things. Depending on their condition, the clothes are washed and repaired. Hired staff pay attention to details like the pairing of shoes and socks.

In Need Of Funds

For the first five years of its existence Goonj has operated without any major source of funding. “We tried everybody, but came back empty-handed because we did not fall within their parameters of funding,” says Gupta, the former corporate communications manager of Escorts.

The reason for its self-sustainability is Gupta’s innovative methods. His methods make operations extremely cost effective. Sometimes, he even ensures that a part of the transportation cost is borne by the local organisation.

“What we are attempting is to ensure that people who donate clothes and other items pay for their transport costs (Re 1 per item) too,” says Gupta. “Because what they are doing is not charity but basically cleaning up their house.” Today, he can send clothes anywhere in the country within 97 paisa, which includes the cost of collection, sorting, packing, transport and distribution.

Another reason for Goonj’s success—its revenue was Rs 1 crore in 2008-09—lies in developing partners. Today it has 150 implementation partners in rural areas and a huge number in urban areas. And, funds have started flowing in. In January 2008, EXL, a business process outsourcing company, promised Rs 10 lakh a year to Goonj from employee contributions. Other corporates, such as SafeExpress, too, have chipped in with their support and contributions.

Not satisfied with just donating free clothes, Gupta decided to give clothing a developmental edge by starting the “clothes for work” initiatives. Villagers now have to identify and solve pressing problems of their own area such as road repair, cleaning drains and plantation, before receiving these clothes. “In Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, the village has built a tank without spending a single paisa,” says Gupta. Clearly, the initiative is paying dividends because there are many being started across India like the desilting of a well in Chapra, Bihar, building a school in Sitamani, Bihar, and a cleanliness drive in Maharashtra.

Cleaning Up

Ask him about his pet initiative and he shoots back, “Sanitary napkins.” Looking at the raised eyebrows he explains. Rural women were using unhygienic methods during their menstruation cycles. “There were times when women in the same house would use the same cloth after washing it,” says Gupta. The situation was so pathetic that in the Laporia village of Rajasthan a majority of the women had their uteruses removed by quacks because of infections. He wanted to help rural women with low-cost sanitary napkins.

So, he went into business to find a solution to this issue. He collected old cotton sheets and discarded clothing, cut them into strips to be washed and sterilised and packed for distribution to women at a nominal price. “We priced each packet of five strips at Rs 3, which is a fraction of what a regular branded napkin costs. Most of the napkins are distributed free because the idea is to sensitise the public to a national problem,” says Gupta. This initiative brought him global accolades, including the Development Marketplace Award from the World Bank in 2007.

Thus, what started as an endeavour to clothe the needy some 10 years ago has clicked and grown into a nation-wide movement. Goonj sends 500 tonnes of goods every year from Delhi to nearly 21 states through non-governmental organisations, self-help groups and even the army.

And that does not include disaster relief. For instance, during the Kosi floods, 1,500 tonnes of relief material was sent to Bihar.

Anshu Gupta is one former journalist who is writing a story definitely with a different ending.

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