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Want Not, Waste Not

Organization: Goonj
Area of Focus: Urban Waste Recycling
Location: New Delhi
Email: anshu_goonj1@yahoo.co.in
Website: goonj.org

By any definition of the word, Anshu Gupta, award-winning founder of Goonj, is a revolutionary. By transforming simple ideas into nation-wide movements, this Ashoka Fellow has been redefining traditional notions of service. Goonj's philosophy revolves around a widely-known but seldom-implemented philosophy: one person's rags can indeed be someone elses riches, especially in the context of India's gigantic urban-rural divide. Through its successful program Vastra-daan, Goonj has been able to demonstrate the immense versatility of cloth. With his characteristic humility, Anshu explains the driving force behind his 'do what you can with what you have' modus operandi, 'Why do we forget that half our country does not need a disaster to be helped? The biggest problem in our country is still food, clothing and shelter. By focussing on clothing, we can solve at least one of the basic issues.'

Through Vastra-daan, Goonj volunteers collect, sort and distribute cloth products to far-flung needy areas. Goonj transports over 5000 kilograms of clothes per month to many historically neglected areas across the country, with help its dedicated team of volunteers. All types of clothing are accepted, from spaghetti-strapped tops to tattered lungis, for Goonj is able to find an ingenious way to make use of them. Goonj, through cooperatives of unemployed urbanites or villagers, produces a stunning array of cloth mats from donated cloth. These mats are valued by school children from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, who are otherwise subject to dirt floors and gunny bags even in the harshest of climatic conditions.

Showcasing the variety of bags, rugs, mats and pouches made by donated clothes, Anshu stresses that cloth is one of the basic necessities for humankind, yet it is rarely given too much importance. 'We document the number of people who die of floods and of earthquakes. Yet how often has the government ever counted the numbers who die -- mind you, preventable deaths -- of the cold everyday during Delhi's winters?' For women especially, Anshu elaborates, clean cloth is of paramount importance. 'Women need a cloth for five days every month. Since it is considered to be pollution, women use the dirtiest cloth in the house. Something that's been used to clean the floors, the bathrooms. And because it is imperative that the cloth be hidden from the neighbors, the cloth does not ever see the light of day. Furthermore, there are usually 2 or 3 women in a household. They all use the same cloth. And in this context of shame, of extreme health-risks, we often overlook this reality and give them lectures on reproductive health, maternity care. We still have a long way to go, but providing some clean cloth is a good first step.'

One of Goonj's newest urban waste recycling projects is School-to-School, a program which has recently won the Changemakers Innovation Award for its excellence. The program involves a partnership between a privileged urban school and a rural school, in which students from the urban school give their rural counterparts school paraphernalia that they would normally have discarded. Schools that wish to participate in the program are given reading material -- printed on one-side used paper -- to distribute to the children. In this way, children are sensitized on issues facing their less-privileged counterparts, and are encouraged to think about the value of their own education and the value that they in turn can help bring to the lives of children in less-fortunate circumstances.

True to the name of his organization -- Goonj means 'echo' in Hindi -- Anshu hopes that the reverberations of his programs will spread not only from school-to-school, but from person to person, state to state, across the country, as 'giving' becomes not just something that people do in their spare time, but something that becomes a part of people's very being. Goonj operates in many states of India, and always welcomes new volunteers. To find out more about volunteer opportunities, email Goonj or access their website for more information.

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