Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Making a Difference: ...Not Just a Piece of Cloth

Here is real life fairy-tale rags-to-riches story...

...except that this is a story of converting what the urban India considers "rags" into the "riches/resources" for those who - due to some quirk of fate - were born elsewhere, in some other families...

So here goes...

In October 1991, the mountainous region of Uttar Kashi in Northern India was hit by a 6.5 richter earthquake, causing widespread havoc and making countless people homeless. Anshu Gupta, a 21 year old student from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (New Delhi), and a freelancing photo-journalist, decided to visit the affected areas to do a feature. What struck him, and remained imprinted in his memory was the insensitivity with which the relief was being provided to people.

He recalled much later:

“The hill people are poor but they are proud. They were aghast at bundles of clothes dumped from moving trucks, literally on their heads. They withdrew and chose to wrap themselves in potato sacking cloth."

That lesson remained with him:

Help and charity should not deprive people of their basic human dignity and self-respect.

Back in Delhi, one day while passing by a hospital, he was intrigued to see an unusual signboard printed on tricycle-rickshaw:

"Dilli pulis ka laash dhone wala" (Disposer of dead bodies for the Delhi Police).

This was an odd unheard-of job-description for a rickshaw-puller. Curious to find out more about this, Anshu located and talked to the rickshaw-puller, Habib.

Habib had a strange occupation, which remained invisible in the impersonal hum-drum of the metropolitan life.

Everyday a number of people died on Delhi footpaths – due to illness, cold or plain hunger. Their bodies remained unclaimed; there was no suspicion of “foul play” since everyone accepted that these deaths were, in legally accepted parlance, “due to natural causes”. However, these bodies had to be disposed, and Habib was hired by the Delhi Police to take these bodies to the nearest crematorium, for which he would get Rs. 20/- and 3 yards of cloth to cover each body.

Anshu talked to and followed Habib on his routes, and finally wrote a feature on Habib. What however, jolted him was a statement by Habib:

“The body count goes up in winter. I can barely cope.”

What would be a business bonanza for Habib was also a sad statement about the life of a large part of populace in the capital of the country. Habib’s own 5-year old daughter, who would often accompany, once told him:

“When I feel cold at night, I just tightly hug the dead body on the rickshaw and sleep with it.”

Anshu felt deeply about this experience, and discussed this with his batch-mate, Meenakshi. It was difficult for him to remain just an objective photo-journalist, and not get involved...

...Life, however, moved on. Anshu completed his course, and joined Escorts in the corporate communication department. Meenakshi joined BBC radio, and they got married in 1995.

...and then one day, in 1998, the life took an unexpected turn.

...When a disaster strikes somewhere, there are wide-spread efforts, by many agencies, to collect clothes, medicines, utensils, grains, etc. And many of us, donate whatever we can/ feel like donating. Behind these acts of charity, there is also a “feel good” factor of having done our bit for the society; and then we return back to our normal daily life.

In a similar situation, when Anshu and Meenakshi put together their disposable clothes, they were shocked.

Here they were, as Anshu recalled later..

"...a young family of two adults, new home-makers for just three years, not wealthy by any means and we have 67 pieces of good, usable garments we don't want any more. Yet, but for the disaster we wouldn't be giving them away."

The dots of past encounters connected as a personal insight…

...The same is true for most of us. To quote Anshu from the video below:

"(It) literally take a disaster to happen, and then you take out clothes… so our basic issue was that half the country does not need a disaster, but they need clothing. For every single person who does not have enough to cover himself or herself, winters are a much bigger, regular disasters.”

And so, Goonj was born.

Anshu Gupta left his corporate job, and formed an organization, Goonj, to collects, process and distribute what the urban India disposes to those who really need it
Since then, from a pile of 67 clothes in 1998, today Goonj has grown:

  • it collects and dispatches 20,000kg of clothes from collection centers across five cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Jalandhar and Hyderabad)

  • across 19 states in the country, and

  • the are requirements specified by around 100 grassroot NGOs

    If this makes sense to you, please spend 7:10min of your time to view this video to know what Goonj does:

    … better still.
    Visit the Goonj Website!

    Which brings me back to an old question:

    Are we??...

    thanks for the suggesions, Kiran:

  • Please click here to find Goonj's Collection Points

  • You can also participate in The Giving Challenge by helping Goonj win $50000


    Ajit Chouhan said...

    Inspiring and thought provoking.Thanks for this.

    Anonymous said...

    Can I make a request? It would be great if while promoting such worthy initiatives, you could probably make it easy for people like us(who don't blog or have the requisite literary skills :-) ) to spread the word quickly.

    For example I went to the website and saw that Goonj could win $50,000 if enough people donated money.

    I want to send it as an email to all my friends, but I am unable to do so because I have to make sure that a non-professional email that I send is good enough that it captures most eyeballs. In my profession where one gets 100 mails everyday, not all the forwards get noticed.

    So could I request you to have a similar format as given below so that people who are lazier than me (if they exist) can spread the information easily :-). I just sent the following to my friends.

    Template below------------

    Subject: Drop your Clothes !!

    At Delhi, Chennai or Hyderabad.

    Goonj is a unique resource mobilization initiative providing clothes and other basic amenities to millions in the far-flung areas by turning one’s wastage into a resource for another.

    You can find a list of collection points at []

    You can also participate in the Giving Challenge by helping Goonj win $50000. Know more here []

    Madhukar said...

    Thanks for this suggestions, Kiran!

    I have included in the post

    Will keepthis in mind in the coming posts


    musingsfromdownunder said...

    I am really touched by your blog more so by goonj video. I am stunned to realize what we take for granted as our basic need is actually a luxury for so many women....
    Thanks for raising an awareness about Goonj. I am sure to create more space in my cupboard.