Anshu K. Gupta is facilitating an economic bridge between urban, wealthy India and impoverished, rural India by simply sharing the surplus of wealth. Anshu is establishing a culture of sustained donations in India by creating a mechanism for second-hand clothes and goods to pass from the wealthy to the poor.
The New Idea
Anshu realized that the vast stocks of everyday necessities—from clothes to medicines—lying as idle surplus in the homes of the rich can be converted into a substantial economic resource for the country if channeled efficiently to the rural poor. His organization, GOONJ, is building a nationwide movement to encourage and manage a massive transfer of used clothes, household goods, and other essential items from one population to the other. Anshu’s approach is designed to transform waste materials that reduce cash expenditure in low-income households and result in a small but critical expansion of their spending power. On the demand side, Anshu ensures that GOONJ precisely matches the needs of poor communities, through detailed market surveys that carefully analyze the different region-specific lifestyle patterns to gather data pertaining to gender ratio, dress and food habits, cooking practices etc.
On the supply side, Anshu focuses on transforming donor attitudes about reusable resources lying unused in their homes and the huge impact these resources can have on a poor family. Transparency and accountability are built into GOONJ’s system and donors have a clear picture of why and whom they are transacting with. The whole process of donation is geared to cultivate conscious giving, not thoughtless dumping.
GOONJ minimizes its operational costs by keeping its core staff small and leveraging a 300-plus rapidly expanding volunteer network. Anshu also realized that a single organization cannot reach the national distribution scale he aspires to so GOONJ works in a nodal capacity within a growing network of over one hundred partner grassroots organizations, social activists, units of the Indian army, and other Ashoka Fellows who are working directly with some of the most marginalized communities located in isolated regions.
About 35 percent of India’s one billion strong population lives below the poverty line, with the majority of them based in villages. For this population, living is a daily battle for survival as each day brings anew the struggle for everyday necessities like clothes, medicine, basic cooking utensils, school books etc. The unavoidable need for a piece of clothing by a family member can present an economic crisis for the household. Servicing the need may involve sacrificing some other pressing need or entering the vicious cycle of debt by borrowing at exorbitant rates from the moneylender.
At the other end of the spectrum are the urban rich, the sole beneficiaries of India’s economic growth. Their escalating purchasing power is fueling what is estimated as the country’s biggest-ever consumer boom. The wealthy, consumptive, urban India exists side by side with the impoverished, neglected India and the economic growth of one has yet to transform the poverty of the other. To illustrate, a new shirt in the wealthy India is just one other addition to a wardrobe but in the rural India, that shirt can prevent a family from eating, deepen a cycle of debt, or stop a child from going to school.
Unlike Goodwill, Salvation Army and other thrift stores in the US, India has neither the culture nor the machinery to transfer material excess to the poor who desperately need it. Donations in India have almost always been disaster driven: knee-jerk reactions to a catastrophe that whip up local community groups into a flurry of short-lived collection activity. Even in these donations, quality of the material collected is a big factor in reducing the value addition of giving. For donors, donating their old belongings is largely an unthinking act: giving old clothes away and dumping them in a garbage vat are almost on par. Often the clothes and goods they donate are damaged beyond repair.
At the same time, collection agencies are not geared to meet specific demands of the end-users, resulting frequently in donations that are not in sync with the different cultural and regional specifications and hence worthless. The other major deterrent to conscious giving is a lack of transparency. Frequent reports of corruption among collecting agencies and lack of accountability has also created a general sense of mistrust among donors. There is no credible system of sustained collection and distribution that well-intentioned donors can rely on.
Anshu’s strategy is a combination of streamlined systems of logistics management, public education, demand-specific sourcing and creative collaboration with other citizen groups. To launch GOONJ, Anshu decided to focus on clothes as an effective entry-point for his mission. Clothes are essential, yet often unaffordable for the poor, and donating old clothes is an activity familiar to Indians. Anshu initiated Vastradaan, a nationwide ongoing clothes donation movement to familiarize donors with the concept of conscious and sustained giving as a response to this problem.
Sourcing and collection of materials is done at community hubs like residents’ associations, schools, corporate organizations and community centers. Collection drives are usually theme-based and tailored to meet specific demand: for instance, pre-winter months see campaigns for woolen blankets to be sent to snowline villages; or a drive may be held exclusively for children’s clothes. The theme-based nature of the drives connects the donor to the end-user: giving is no longer random and directed to some vague, unspecified target audience.
Besides these regular drives, there are 35 collection centers in Delhi and other Indian metropolitan areas. Collection drives are also used as opportunities for educating the public about good practices in donation. For example, donors are instructed to knot together the two shoes in a pair so that it remains a true pair. Frequently, at the collection venue itself, GOONJ volunteers keep a heap of clothes and shoes—torn, irredeemably stained, unpaired or in other ways unusable—to illustrate what not to give. GOONJ audits the material that is collected and all collections are taken to a GOONJ center where they are washed, sorted, repaired and readied for use. Attention to detail—checking that garments requiring waist drawstrings have these, shoes are properly paired, shirts are not missing buttons etc.—goes a long way in avoiding wastage and ensuring full utility. Thus, by the time a piece of clothing is finally shipped off to the end-user it has undergone several value additions—it is clean, neat, and heading towards a person who needs it. Whenever very new items or very valuable ones enter the stream, they are put aside in order to avoid inequities among recipients and, more important, to contribute to weddings and other events for which the rural poor often go into deep debt. Because it is not feasible to charge even a token amount for the clothing, Anshu has introduced a “clothes-for-work” concept that makes families eligible for receiving clothes and other goods by participating in community development activities sponsored by the local partners.
Distribution is designed to strengthen the role of local partners that GOONJ works with to have national spread. Through these organizations GOONJ is operating in 14 Indian states. In order to maintain the integrity of the process, these organizations are carefully selected on the basis of stringent reference checks. Partners are responsible for collecting data and determining specific needs of the target communities in their areas. When a consignment finally reaches the target community, records of receipt—both visual (photographs, videos) and signatures or thumbprints of recipients—are sent back to GOONJ and are available to donors.
Anshu’s strength lies in creatively finding and engaging new partners for all aspects of GOONJ’s work. The volunteers in GOONJ’s collection drives include several working professionals who joined Goonj after participating in a local collection drive. Several corporations support GOONJ by organizing collection drives on their premises and bringing their regional offices into the net. Anshu’s excellent negotiation skills have resulted in some cost-cutting coups like rock-bottom transportation fees from long-distance carriers and procurement of jute bags for packing from grain merchants. Recently, Anshu has identified garment exporters who possess extensive surplus stocks as a resource he plans to tap. Most of his local partners are Citizen sector organizations. Anshu has even collaborated with an army regiment to send woolens and blankets to inaccessible villages in Kashmir.
Anshu is now looking into disaster preparedness to create a rapid response system whereby GOONJ works with partners to swiftly collect, sort, and dispatch necessary relief material to affected areas. A trial run undertaken during the Gujarat riots in 2001 was very successful. Another recent program is GOONJ’s School-to-School Initiative. The lack of stationery, bags, and uniforms is a major deterrent to attending school for poor, rural children. Affluent city kids, by contrast, discard barely-used uniforms, pens and exercise books. Anshu is encouraging schools in Delhi to hold end-of-term drives for schools supplies and uniforms, which will then go to rural schools. On an average, an urban school with about 2000 students can support 4 to 5 rural schools. The program has been implemented in Bihar and in South India and 2000 children have been benefited so far.
Through his work on clothes, Anshu has been able to provide clean cloth for sanitary napkins—a very basic but most neglected need of poor women. In a scenario where millions are spent on reproductive health and mother care, the use of dirty cloth becomes a hotbed for many diseases. Anshu is offering a simple and practical solution in terms of clean sanitized cloth strips to be used as sanitary napkins by the village women. These napkins are made from donated cloth that is completely unwearable.
For the last seven years GOONJ has played an active role in reaching relief material at the time of any major disaster across India. Having worked on earthquakes, floods, cyclone, GOONJ took up the pioneering project of turning the Tsunami rejected cloth into a resource for the people of Tamil Nadu and for the rest of India.
From 67 articles of clothing from Anshu’s own closet, GOONJ’s monthly disbursal has now grown to over ten thousand kilograms. Anshu is currently concentrating on meeting his immediate target of opening full operations in 10 cities, adding more states in the network, and ramping up the flow of material in existing channels to 3 times its current rate. He actively encourages organizations that want to replicate the GOONJ model regionally providing them with his business plan and advice.
The eldest of four siblings in a middle-class family, Anshu learnt early the importance of optimally utilizing scant resources. When Anshu was 14, his father suffered a heart attack, catapulting the teenager into the role of money manager for the family and helping his mother to somehow stretch their meager resources to meet their needs. This responsibility helped him to understand the crucial importance of self-reliance. A near-fatal road accident at the end of 12th standard rendered him an invalid, but the yearlong confinement in bed served as a period for reading and introspection. Even then he started contributing to household expenses by writing articles for Hindi newspapers. Determined to appear for his school-leaving exams, he refused to listen to the doctors and forced himself out of bed to reach the exam, choosing to walk in agony rather than using a crutch because he did not want to be pitied.
A masters in economics, a double major in journalism and mass communications took him to Delhi and widened his horizons. As a graduate student he traveled to Uttarkashi in North India in 1991 to help in relief efforts after a cataclysmic earthquake in the region. This was his first real exposure to the scale of problems of India’s rural masses. The sense of shock stayed with him as he finished his education and got a secure government job and then moved to the corporate sector. Eventually, the need to do something and the slow germination of the idea of GOONJ over the years became too strong to resist. He left his job with an Indian MNC in 1998 and with the full support and partnership of his wife and other friends he started GOONJ.
Anshu lives in Delhi with his wife and daughter and works full time for GOONJ. His other passion is photography, and while on travel to all parts of the country he captures his experiences on film. These photographs are displayed at various forums including collection sites and act as powerful documentaries of the desperate need of millions and the magic of giving.