2015 MW Men of the Year: Anshu Gupta – the man who brought dignity to India’s poor
WHEN we finally get to speak to Anshu Gupta of Goonj, it’s just after a stray firecracker has burned down their factory at Sarita Vihar in south Delhi, reducing to ash kilos of clothes, toys and materials collected by the body since February 2015. It is “season-time” for them, with winter creeping into India, and the volunteers have been trying to salvage what scrap they can from the ashes and organise urgent collection drives in other cities to bring in more clothes. “That’s life,” he shrugs, when we apologise for pestering him in the middle of this tragedy. “What’s important is that the spirit is strong.”
Anshu and Meenakshi Gupta started Goonj in 1998 to address the much-ignored need for clothing. To emphasise this, Gupta often says in his public speeches, “Clothing is a basic dignity. If I don’t eat for a day, and you invite me to speak, I can still do it. But, if I don’t have clothes, I can’t.” The reason why it is ignored in government policies is because it’s rarely on our empathy radar. “Urban people may experience homelessness, perhaps superficially, when they travel or can’t afford a house. You could know what poverty is because you see it or experience it, but never do we go without clothes. Clothes are only seen as a relief material in the face of a natural disaster, but poverty is an ongoing calamity. How can you talk to people about hygiene when they don’t have clothes to change into after a bath?”
As a journalist in Delhi, Gupta could see what others ignored. “There are two ways of looking at something — to see it and to observe it. I once met Habib, an unidentified corpse collector. His job was to pick up corpses with no family and take them for cremation or burial. He was given Rs 20 per corpse by the police, and he said his workload multiplies in winter. He would pick up two to three bodies a day in summer; in winter it would rise to 10-12. His then four-year-old daughter, Banoo, told me, ‘When I feel cold, I hug a corpse and sleep. It doesn’t trouble me; it doesn’t turn around or fidget.’”
Entrepreneur Venkat Krishnan, the co-founder and director of Educational Initiatives Pvt Ltd and Give India, has been friends with Gupta since 2001. “Gupta has very high integrity and respect for the beneficiaries served by Goonj. He is ridiculously hard-working and pushes himself despite his physical limitations [Gupta suffered fractures in both legs as a teenager] and travels endlessly,” he says. A conversation with Gupta challenges lazy presumptions. “So, Goonj collects clothes from the city and distributes them in rural areas?” I ask. “Goonj is not merely a collection and distribution agency,” he informs. “That’s just 50 per cent of our work. It’s trying to set up a parallel trash-based, as opposed to cash-based, sustainable economy.”
Goonj collects, sorts and processes donated clothes into blankets, wearable clothes, undergarments, sanitary napkins, bags etc, and then uses them as rewards to motivate developmental projects. It seeks to dissolve the condescending donor-recipient psychology. “What rural areas have is dignity; the victim psychology is an urban phenomenon. The developmental projects are chosen by the people and executed using local wisdom, local materials and local labour.”
For this work, Gupta has been awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2015 and the CNN-IBN Real Heroes award. He is often called to speak at events such as TEDx, the World Islamic Economic Forum and LAUNCH (NASA). Prakhar Bharati, the entrepreneur behind Youth Alliance in Delhi, considers Gupta a mentor and advisor. Youth Alliance aims to groom empathetic leaders for the future by reforming higher education centres in Uttar Pradesh which, cheerfully, Gupta is a great example of. “He understands where a youngster is coming from. He’s aggressive in speech, but soft on the inside. There’s one incident that cemented our relationship,” says Bharati. “Once when I met him, he silently took out a cheque and gave it to me saying, ‘I’ve been where you are before. You probably need funding.’ I was touched because I had not asked for anything. Every six months, he’ll call me and check if I need funding or any other assistance.” As this example shows, success for Gupta is when people adapt, improve and replicate the Goonj model to turn victims and receivers into stakeholders of their own development.