This NGO focuses on receiver's dignity

Villagers do community service for clothes

This NGO focuses on receiver's dignity
Goonj today deals with over 1,000 tonnes of material every year

Scores of women with masks on sort through piles of clothes and segregate them according to colour, sex, age, and material at different rooms in a building at south Delhi’s Sarita Vihar.  They put these clothes in different boxes labelled as “kameez”, shirt, half-pant, and “chunni”.

This is the processing unit of Goonj, an NGO, that works towards delivering resources of daily needs, especially one of basic but unaddressed necessities--cloth--to the underprivileged. These clothes have arrived at the unit from the many collection centres of the NGO across the national capital. They are washed, checked for damages, repaired and packed in large gunny bags to be sent for distribution in the villages.

“Some clothes are in a very bad condition or some cannot be worn because of the size. Suppose a trouser of size 38 will not be of use to anyone in villages. So, we make them into other products like handbags  and school bags,” says a woman working at the unit.
One look at various rooms at the unit and one will get the idea of the creativity that goes into making these products. Even a small product like a pen stand for the office is made out of an old jeans and an empty thread coil. “Nothing goes to waste, everything is used,” says Imran, who manages the unit.

Goonj encourages urban India to give clothes and then distributes them among poor across 21 states. But the receivers don’t get these products as charity. Instead, they earn them by their hard labour. “We focus on receiver’s dignity instead of the donor’s pride. We want to move out of charity. Free distribution makes them beggars. We call it cloth-for-work initiative,” says Anshu Gupta, who founded the NGO in 1999, and recently won the Ramon Magsaysay award.

Under this initiative, people in the rural areas are asked to do some community service like digging wells, cleaning ponds, making temporary school structures and making a road. “We also ask them to take the ownership of the structure and maintain it. We are talking about material as a resource. After a point of time, villagers, even without the cloth-for-work programme, take up community service,” says Gupta, who has done a master's degree in journalism (twice) and has a degree in economics.

Started with just 67 clothes, Gupta and his wife had collected, Goonj today deals with over 1,000 tonnes of material every year.

Though the NGO was started with a vision to provide clothes, over the years a lot of other products, such as toys, books, utensils, stationery, electronics, even musical instruments such as guitars and drums have made their way to Goonj’s collection centres.

“All these products are distributed. Through the donated toys, we are trying to target the anganwadis so that we can motivate underprivileged children to come there. Some people also give their marriage clothes. So we make a marriage kit out of them and distribute to villagers,” says Imran.

However, one of the biggest success stories of Goonj is its award-winning “Not just a piece of cloth” initiative launched in 2005 under which scraps of cotton clothes, which cannot be worn,  are recycled into sanitary pads for poor women. The washing process is different for clothes used for making these pads. They are soaked overnight in detergent, washed at least three-four times, dried in the sun and then made into sanitary napkins, each 12-inch wide and 16-inch long. One bundle, called “My Pad”, contains 15 such napkins. 

The NGO has other initiatives such as school-to-school, but it is “Not just a piece of cloth” which is dear to Gupta’s heart. “It was a very significant moment for us to launch this initiative. And the idea became big out of the blue,” he said. Through this programme, rural women have become more aware about their needs during their monthly-cycle.

Besides the routine distribution, Goonj is pro-active during natural disasters, be it the Kashmir floods last year, Nepal earthquake this year or in the aftermath of havoc wreaked by heavy rains and landslides in Manipur. 

“Sending relief material to Kashmir last year was not an easy task as there is not a very active civil society or voluntary sector, tuned to handling natural disasters. Plus, there was an atmosphere of fear or law and order problem. But the people were nice,” Gupta says.

“I must say disasters help to know the area properly. We didn’t know so much poverty exists in Kashmir,” he adds. Such was the impact of the experience in Kashmir, Gupta and his team has opened a full-time office there.

Talking about several news reports mentioning how the idea of Goonj came to him after he accompanied a “body collector”, someone who collects bodies of homeless or unidentified persons, on one December night in 1990 to Old Delhi and saw a man, wearing just a cotton shirt, who had died of cold, Gupta says that is not the only reason.
“If that would have been the reason, Goonj would have started in 1990. But, it is just that the scene stuck with me. From then onwards, wherever I saw people without clothes, I realised it is such a necessity which is overlooked. Though there are many problems in the world, but somehow I was always boggled by this,” he says.

Sitting at his two-floor office, which is anything but flashy, he talks about one of the most touching moments of his journey so far. “Once we were distributing pencil boxes to underprivileged kids in Uttarakhand. A small girl received it and started blushing. We asked her why she is blushing to which she replied, ‘Mujhe machli mili hai’ (I got a fish). She had got a pencil box on which a fish was made. It was so touching to see her smile like that”.

“What we often forget that these people, who the world so proudly calls ‘deprived’, also have emotions.  Sometimes people treat our unit as a garbage disposal unit. So, they should not use the word ‘donate’. They are not donating anything, just discarding. They should be thankful to people who use their products,” he says.

When asked how he finds time for himself, Gupta, who clearly looks sleep-deprived, says, “It is very difficult to find time. I travel almost 15 days a month”.

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