Not just a piece of cloth...
A column on people who chucked the easy life to make a difference
Founder and Director, Goonj
OVER THE years, I have often been asked by many people, ‘Why Goonj?’. When I look back, I don’t remember a eureka moment, a single incident. Rather, it is a series of observations, happenings, which added up, may be in the subconscious mind somewhere. One I often share is about a person called Habib.
Years ago, in my journalism days, one winter morning in old Delhi I read a line, Lawaris lash dhone wala (picker of abandoned dead bodies), written on a rickshaw. A bit shocked and intrigued, I followed the rickshaw and started spending time with Habib — the rickshaw puller — and his blind wife Aamna begum, to understand this strange profession. While accompanying him, two statements from him and his little daughter shook me completely. Habib said, “In winters my work goes up.”
I found that in winters Habib sometimes picked up 10-12 dead bodies within 24 hours, double the number he picked up in summers! His daughter, very innocently said, “When I feel cold, I hug the dead body and sleep. It does not trouble me, it does not turn around.”
I wasn’t ready to accept that ‘people die of cold’. It’s not like an earthquake where the shake kills people or flood where excess of water kills them! If cold kills people then I too would have been dead but I survive and the person on the road dies. It was not the cold, but lack of clothing that was killing people.
For me, Goonj began with my need to figure out a way to deal with the basics of how I defined life. I belong to a family of engineers with no background of such work. For me the question was, whether I was going to take the path which my parents, friends and everyone else around me had taken, or wanted to deal with things a bit differently.
I am often asked, ‘Why clothing?’ and I say ‘Why not clothing?’ If you call it a basic need, how come we remember about it only at the time of disasters? Why do people who give away old clothes consider it a donation? Many people might not like this statement but the fact remains that for thousands of people like us it’s not a donation, it’s a discard. Instead of honouring the so-called donor’s pride, we need to value the receiver’s dignity.
Goonj provides cloth and other material as reward to poor workers
Giving clothes is the most common charitable act worldwide. I want to move it out of this mould. For me, apart from the basic need, cloth is also a symbol of a person’s dignity. Started with 67 clothes in 1998-99, we provide almost 80-100 tonne of material right from clothes, utensil, and computers, to old doors and windows, to village and slum India on a monthly basis but we don’t give it as charity. We need to understand that begging is a typical city phenomena. The biggest asset of villages is their self-respect and dignity. They sleep hungry but don’t beg. We have no right to challenge their dignity. It needs to change. People need to participate. The giving needs to be dignified.
Goonj’s flagship initiative, Cloth for Work, not only dignifies giving but has also proved that old and discarded material can become a resource for village and slum development. Now people dig wells, make bamboo bridges, clean drains, repair roads for themselves and receive cloth and other material as reward. Hundreds of long overdue works are getting completed in many parts of the country.
After 13 years of work highlighting the issue, the public has understood the subject, but policymakers still need to understand it. I certainly need an answer that if you call clothing a basic need, why is it not a basic human right? Back in 2004, when we highlighted that women in rural areas are forced to use sand, ash and jute bags in the name of sanitary pads, making menses a monthly disaster, forcing them into a life of indignity and health risk, why wasn’t there any attention or discussion on the issue?
With a large-scale civic participation, the work is not only becoming a big people’s movement for progress, it’s also aiming to create a parallel economy where every work doesn’t have to wait for money, where the huge quantities of old reusable material become a valuable resource.
We live in a country which has problems in volumes that need solutions in volumes. So, we all need to get up and do something.
Anshu Gupta is an Ashoka Fellow.