Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Evening with Anshu Gupta

It's 10:40PM on New Year's eve: Anshu Gupta stops his car on the streets of India's capital city, alongside a row of sleeping bodies curled up against the cold. His friends and he step out. The car trunk opens and out come blankets, folded within each are a set of trousers and sweaters. Silently, they place the packages beside the homeless and return to their cars. Mission accomplished, they drive on to repeat this anonymous drop-off. At 3:30AM they make their last stop on the south-eastern fringes of Delhi. By 5AM, Anshu and his friends are back at home.

"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?" Anshu frequently asks.

Growing up in a family of four that barely had enough, Anshu always felt the pain of the needy. Years later, he heard an echo within him that couldn't be denied. With his wife, he took 67 items of clothing from their closet and donated it. Soon after, he quit his corporate job, and started 'Goonj' -- a Hindi word that means echo.

Six years since that day, Goonj transports over 10,000 kilograms of donated clothes every month, to the most remote regions of India. Moreover, they've done it largely with a volunteer network!

On Wednesday, May 30th, it is our privilege to host such an uncommon social-change hero, as he shares eloquent stories and insightful lessons from his work on the ground. Everyone's invited! This event is hosted in our home and there is no cost to attend; please RSVP for more details (unfortunately, we can only accommodate the first 80 RSVP's).

"Waste into Resource"

The Goonj model is eloquent in its simplicity: local volunteers ignite word-of-mouth "neighborhood collection days", paid workers and volunteers process, clean and iron the clothes, and a network of 65 NGOs across the country distribute them to the needy.

"I have been told time and again by funding agencies that my concept is interesting but it goes outside the realm of their funding norms," Anshu remarks with a silent glee.

To raise the money for their minimal costs, they creatively turn "waste into resource". For example, unusable or rejected clothes are further processed to create rugs and pouches, and sold at an affordable price. The most popular is the door mat, made of twisted rag strips, hand-sewn together. Companies also let Goonj carry away heaps of discarded, one-sided paper; Goonj turns them into notepads and sells them too. Even internally, Goonj has never bought paper for correspondence or promotions; they only use discarded one-sided paper.

To top it off, Anshu himself has never taken a dime from the effort; his wife supported their family for the first five years, and last year, he received an Ashoka fellowship.

Today, Goonj continues to facilitate an economic bridge between urban, wealthy India and impoverished, rural India by simply sharing the in-kind surplus -- from clothes to medicine to household goods.

And it seems like every month they are discovering unaddressed needs of rural India.

"Women need a cloth for five days [menstrual cycle] 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 and they all use the same cloth. I have traveled far and wide across India, and the situation is the same."

"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 great first step."

Last week, Anshu won an award by the World Bank, to empower him to specifically address these needs of women in rural India.

To call Anshu a revolutionary is no stretch.

Anshu left his high-paying corporate job to reverberate the echo he heard in his heart. When asked if he's happier today, he simply responds, "When a homeless person screams out of elation at Nizamuddin on a cold night, 'Ab hui meri id' after receiving an old coat or when a girl blushes with happiness on getting a pencil box, these are priceless earnings."

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