"But I am surprised, how do you remember an hour and 15 minutes of conversation, quotes, incidents?" Anshu Gupta asked me at the end of our telephonic interview. What would have been a recorded video call was unduly interrupted by bad tech. This is just one of the many instances of empathy that I experienced during my chat with the Founder-Director of Goonj — India’s first NGO “that has taken up clothing as an element of development.” Based in Delhi, yet working chiefly in villages, Gupta’s life is a constant paring of the dichotomy. It is his inherent ability to empathise with anyone at all — that, combined with a total abandonment of presumption — which has driven him to run the human development organisation over the last decade.
AN ALMOST GANDHIAN ETHOS
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi communicated the dignity of poverty and labour, and in doing so, the equality of all Indians through the element of clothing. Short of a century later, Gupta is acknowledged as next-in-line among important public figures to do so. But his agenda runs deeper than the scope of our nationalist struggle. Even though Goonj echoes a similar sentiment, its model is for the world to emulate, duplicate, and build upon. “We want to make our model open source for people and organisations globally. Personally, when we talk to audiences, we talk about changing the lens and language,” Gupta declares. In this regard, he talks about the need to change the current approach to human development and mobilising resources.
“Many of us look for orphanages to give away old clothing, but we often miss being mindful of what people need. We only give away clothes when we don’t need them. That’s why we are mostly discarding not donating. It is just giving away.” He further adds, “If you see the larger picture, we must be thankful to those accepting our discards as they extend the life of something on which we spent our hard-earned money.”
“In my travels in rural India, I’ve always been offered a cup of tea or water by people. No one comes asking for anything. We go to them because we want to. Woh humara keeda hai. Thus, it is our duty to ensure that we don’t do anything to diminish their dignity. Rather our work should nurture and build their dignity. Charity kills dignity and without dignity, there can be no development.”
DIGNITY OF RECEIVING
With Goonj, Gupta worked extensively towards bringing about a change in the mindset of people in both urban and rural India. He says, “We have turned the surplus material of cities into a new currency. In cities and villages we look at people as equal stakeholders. People in cities contribute with their urban material and money, while people in villages contribute with their efforts, natural resources and their local wisdom…”
“Working with people in the villages and cities has been our learning ground. My teachers are the masses. From when we were a small team, to now, at close to 1,000 people, I’ve always told my team that you must work with an open mind and heart,” says Gupta, whose organisation partners with hundreds of institutions, corporates, grassroots organisations across India.
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