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Anshu Gupta: Using Under-Utilized Material as a Tool to Trigger Development

Anshu Gupta: Using Under-Utilized Material as a Tool to Trigger Development


Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs.

Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more equitable. Today I’m super excited to speak with Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, for this blog’s 800th interview!

Spiffy: It’s wonderful to meet you, Anshu. I’m curious about the challenges Goonj is addressing. What can you tell me?

Anshu: It’s great to be here, Spiffy! Goonj’s work encapsulates a closed loop of circularity along with work on climate emergencies with resilient communities pan-India. The dignity of people, indigenous knowledge and wisdom, and primarily their efforts towards achieving common development goals take center stage in the idea. The novelty lies in the urban surplusthe world's so-called discard which serves as an instrument of change empowering people to become drivers of their development challenges.

In urban spaces, our call to the community is to, “Goonj it..,” a manner through which high-end consumerism meets a closed loop of circularity embracing and enhancing the lifecycle of material and thereby making a significant impact in contributing towards decarbonization and water usage. Similarly in rural spaces, by emphasizing participation and climate action work, Goonj impacts material poverty, helps catalyze the self-development of rural communities, and leads to the making of diverse rural assets and distributed equitable employment generation.

Focusing on the last mile, our footprints are in villages of some of the most marginalized states of India like Odisha, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal (WB), several communities across the hilly terrains of Uttarakhand, tribal villages of Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, and the Sunderbans (WB). These communities, which are vulnerable to climate emergencies such as floods, cyclones, and extreme weather, live in remote, inaccessible, and disturbed areas and often turn into climate refugees necessitating community-led decision-making and local nature-based solutions.

For more than two decades now, Goonj has dealt with millions of tons of material annually, and in the last nine years, Goonj has dealt with over 55 million kilograms of material, reaching out to 31 states and union territories, touching the lives of about 15.72 million people. This is how we build a bridge between urban abundance and rural scarcity and economic poverty. The impact multiplies exponentially as sustainability, regeneration, and development are all woven together into systemic well-being.

Spiffy: What motivates you to do it?

Anshu: I am an avid photographer, and this quest led me to my first-hand experiences of disaster and the destruction that it follows. During my studies in 1991 at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), I went out to Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, which was then hit by an earthquake. The idea of realities can be deceptive, but the reality of a disaster can only be felt when you witness it by yourself. The death and destruction it causes—from loss of dignity to lack of basic needs of survival—everything surfaces up to one’s naked eyes. This incident was my first exposure to the aftermath of disaster and hence left an imprint on me.

Another incident that struck a chord in me was when I met Habib, a person whose job is to pick unclaimed dead bodies from the streets of old Delhi. He shared his work experience, saying that during winters his workload becomes difficult to manage as the death toll increases due to the freezing cold. This made me realize that the lack of clothing is one of the grieving concerns in this society.

All these continuous happenings bothered me to my core, and in 1999, I took the path that is less traveled and left my corporate work to be immersed in the development sector. The idea, initially, was to collect urban surplus, majorly clothes, and distribute it to the resource-less sections of the society. My constant question for the people is “Why don’t we improve the world before we change it?” as it focuses on a possible reality, a reality that is doable and that has measurable results.

At a fundamental level, our work is transitioning from the traditional model of development work—from mere assistance to the empowerment of the rural communities, individuals, and families and from inertia to innovation and creativity to actual improvement in quality of life for an individual as well as the community.

Spiffy: That’s truly inspiring! What would you say is the impact of your work?

Anshu: The Goonj model is cost-effective and benefits both urban households, by channeling their excess materials, and far-flung village communities, by providing them with essential items and a sense of dignity and pride, while improving their quality of life. The village communities benefit as their village assets and infrastructure like roads, canals, water bodies, schools, community centers, etc. become better. The Goonj model is widely seen as the genesis of a parallel economy where development works aren’t dependent solely on money—surplus material has evolved as a powerful alternate currency.

On the whole, Goonj is bringing about a change at the micro and macro levels. Providing basic material with dignity to development work and economic empowerment is achieved without any financial transaction, only with the city’s underutilized materials. Goonj involves everyone in their own problem-solving, instead of depending on outside advice, which is very empowering and also doesn’t burden the receiver or giver! It involves city masses, mostly isolated from rural realities, for work in rural parts. On a macro level, village communities are being vitalized, as their standards of living improve with material inputs. Other sectors touched by development activities—education, environment, infrastructure building, etc.—also have their own multiplier effects. In the last nine years, the incremental increase in the number of community development activities taken up through Goonj is 76,512.

The major initiatives of Goonj include,

Cloth for Work (CFW) which repositions cities' urban discard as a development resource for the neglected rural India issues. Annually, more than 3,000 tons of material is channelized to remote villages, motivating village communities to work on self-identified issues in their areas. Over 3,000 development activities every year on issues like water, infrastructure, education, agriculture, etc. are undertaken in more than 1,700 villages across India.

School to School (S2S) which is an attempt to fill the gap in resources in rural schools by providing them with basic school materials like stationery and sports materials. On the other hand, Goonj motivates urban school children to give their unutilized school materials to their rural counterparts. But instead of giving this material as a charity, it is given as a reward for efforts made by children around issues of learning and behavior like hygiene, attendance, and discipline.

Not Just a Piece of Cloth (NJPC); in India, millions of women use sand, wood ash, old rags, newspapers, and even plastic bags due to the absence of enough cloth to deal with their menses every month. A strong culture of shame and silence around this issue makes it difficult for women to even share their challenges, which Goonj defines as the A’s—access, awareness, and affordability. Goonj’s nationwide intervention starts with providing a physical product (cloth sanitary pads—MY Pads) made from cloth collected from the urban masses. Goonj’s effort is focused on opening up this taboo among the rural masses and highlighting to the urban masses the role their surplus cloth can play.

Rahat; India has been facing frequent disasters over the last two decades and is working on varied disasters from earthquakes to tsunamis, cyclones, floods, etc. Goonj has built an active, reliable, and time-tested network of stakeholders in both rural and urban India, ensuring our response time for generating and channelizing disaster relief and rehabilitation resources is fast and customized to changing needs. Communities are also involved in the rehabilitation phase where they build and repair structures that were affected during the disasters.

Green by Goonj which is a brand built on reusing and up-cycling last shreds of material collected as urban discard. A range of over 100 different lifestyle and rural use products like purses, fancy bags, file folders, school bags, patchwork quilts, and more, made from torn jeans, obsolete audio tapes, etc. shows the ingenuity and aesthetics of women team members from nearby slums that make them. A strong workforce of women also engages in making “sujnis” (quilts) and “aasans” (mats) out of the last shreds of unwearable cloth.

Spiffy: You are indeed creating a far-reaching impact! Tell me about a recent milestone/initiative by you or your organization. What impact does that make?

Anshu: Recently, we have set foot on a new journey of Gram Swabhimaan (meaning “village self-respect”). This new journey aims to make rural people realize their own worth and dignity and make a promise to shun labels like “bechara” (helpless), “besahara” (destitute), and “gareeb” (poor) to describe oneself. “Swabhimaan” which essentially means self-respect is the core of this initiative and it provides people the opportunity to tap into their own potential and capabilities. The society we have built over the last few decades has created a large social divide between urban and rural communities. The dominant narrative puts the urban societies on a higher pedestal in comparison to the rural communities, suggesting that they are far more superior and more skilled whilst simultaneously demeaning all the relevant yet different skill sets existing in the rural communities. Gram Swabhimaan aims to bring this much-needed narrative change to society. The objective is to first acknowledge this fallacy and then further put efforts toward changing it. This need not come only from the urban spaces, but also from within the rural communities. The realization of the goal will suggestively be done via regular conversation and resource conservation activities undertaken by the rural community (without any assistance from outside authorities).

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Anshu—it’s been an honor!

Anshu Gupta is the founder of Goonj. An Ashoka and Schwab fellow and Magsaysay awardee, Anshu has created a mass movement by repositioning the last person as a champion of change, a contributor, and an equal participant with his wisdom, resources, and hard work. With his core philosophy imbibed in dignity and respect for recipients, he has successfully repositioned materialespecially clothingbeyond the traditional perception of charity. With a double postgraduate diploma in journalism, advertising, and public relations, and a master's degree in economics, Anshu started his professional journey as a freelance journalist and later worked with major institutions, before he started Goonj in 1999. With Goonj, he built the genesis of a parallel trash-based economy by creating a barter between the efforts of rural communities and urban surplus material as new currencies. His work majorly revolves around developing the whole social development sector’s ecosystem alongside building a whole new language and lens with which the sector operates. (First published on the Ladderworks website on February 23, 2024.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2024 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Sujit Kunte. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.