“We don’t want to change the world, we want to improve it first,” says Anshu Gupta, founder and Director of the social enterprise Goonj.
Anshu began his career as a copywriter and went on to work as a communications professional. But in the late 90s, he had an encounter that changed the course of his work and life forever.
Anshu loved learning about people and their stories. One day, he came across a man in Delhi named Habib. Habib rode a rickshaw which read “Laawarish Laash Uthaanewaala” (this rickshaw is used to lift unclaimed dead bodies). He decided to spend the week with Habib. Little did he know that this week woudl change the course of his entire life.
The change begins
He went everywhere with him. Habib told Anshu that he picked up 4 to 5 bodies every day in the summer and during winters, it went up to 10 or 11 because of the people who couldn’t survive the cold. As harsh as this was, the moment that truly shook Anshu had not yet arrived.
One day, Habib’s six-year-old daughter Bano joined them. She told Anshu that on some nights when it got freezing, she would hug a dead body and sleep. It didn’t bother her, she said, as the body didn’t twist or turn.
Anshu was undone. He went home and, along with his wife, put together 67 clothes that they could give away. He always thought that he didn’t have enough, but that was the day he realized just how much he had and could give.
Cloth for Work – an initiative of dignity
This incident was the beginning of a new journey for Anshu and his wife Meenakshi. As he thought about it, he realized that clothing was the most important aspect of a person’s dignity.
“In the world, there is no place where charity work has sustained and development has happened,” says Anshu. “Charity has to be dignified. It has to change.”
Anshu began the initiative ‘Cloth for Work’ using cloth as the reward for dignified labour in rural communities. He encouraged the people to figure out their problems and what they needed to solve it. He would then provide them material and ask them to do the work.
They build their own bridges, roads, and wells. The community came together to solve for whatever they needed and they were given clothes as a token of recognition for their hard work.
In doing so, he created two parallel currencies, labour and cloth. Money, he says, was only for the logistics of it.
Over the past two decades, the Cloth for Work initiative has spread across 21 states in India. Goonj’s model is often called one of the few disruptive ones in the nonprofit sector, that left a dent in the way charity, help and poverty is seen across the country.
Not Just a Piece of Cloth
Anshu and his team at Goonj also began to realize that another issue in India was the lack of menstrual hygiene facilities. Women across poorer parts of the world, including much of rural India, used whatever they could to soak blood during their monthly cycles.
This would often be grass, ash, or even cow dung. Anshu shudders as he recalls a woman who used a blouse and passed away because of tetanus she got from its hook.
This was a huge problem. But not one without an innovative solution that Goonj had already laid the foundation for.
They began Not Just a Piece of Cloth as an initiative to provide menstrual health kits to poor women across India. These kits have clean underwear, information about the natural process of menstruation and a pack of reusable sanitary napkins.
Goonj collects reusable cloth from urban India and prepares these sanitary napkins for those who cannot afford them. These napkins are made by women in rural India, which gives them employment, making NJPC yet another initiative rooted in bringing dignity to everyone.
Anshu has won several awards for the change he has created, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his incredible work with Goonj. He believes that Goonj is not an enterprise but an idea – one that he hopes will spread and help restore dignity to the poor whilst removing the gap between urban and rural India.