New Delhi: It was an early morning phone call that alerted a surprised Anshu Gupta, 45, the founder of the non-profit Goonj, that he has been chosen for Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2015.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award, widely regarded as Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, has been given to Gupta to recognize “his creative vision in transforming the culture of giving in India, his enterprising leadership in treating cloth as a sustainable development resource for the poor and reminding the world that true giving always respects and preserves human dignity”.
“Creativity and sustainability are just about good execution. My objective behind Goonj has been to maintain dignity of people who at the receiving end because they are in place where they have accepted status quo, don’t know how to ask for more and don’t even complain. So if you chose to give, you should strive to give dignity along with charity,” said Gupta seated at the Madanpur Khadar basti Goonj collection centre, with a plate of ladoos in front of him.
Gupta, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi, has come a long way from working out of a small office within the Sarita Vihar DDA apartments in New Delhi to this three-building processing unit. Goonj, which has been in operation since 1999, processes 100 tonnes of material per month including clothes, some of which are repaired, cleaned and distributed to the needy, mostly in rural India. Cloth is also repurposed into sanitary napkins to help women stay safe and clean during menstruation. Gupta’s initiative has moved beyond cloth to now incorporate even utensils, school bags and shoes. “It is just a journey to look for different currencies for development. That’s how I see it. My question is always why are we so dependent on money only? People should be able to give what they have and that includes the ‘poor’ people who are at the receiving end of the material. They give back (to society) in a currency called labour and their reward is currency called material. It’s actually barter and this is what helps preserve their dignity,” he said, explaining why it is important that people in rural India who receive goods from Goonj donate some part of their time to community work.
Often among the first to reach places affected by natural calamities (the Nepal earthquake or the Kashmir flood), Gupta says Goonj has worked out a system that enables it have a quick and effective impact. “We have some rules. We only go the disaster site after seven days, when the media and the general rush of people has subsided and then we get to work. We have established a supply chain.” Then, according to Gupta, everything is a disaster “for me; it is not just floods or earthquakes. Poverty, cold and even menstruation are a disaster for people who do not have access to resources”.
With the recognition of Goonj’s work, Gupta hopes more people will come forward and replicate its model. “That is the only hope we have with this award. This model can be duplicated in at least half the world and many other parts of India. We are very sure that we want to grow as an organization to some extent, but we largely want to grow as an idea. We want people to copy, distort, replicate our idea,” he said.
Yet, in all of this, Gupta is aware of his limitations and says that unless Indians become responsible and accountable for their actions, not much will change in this country.
“Goonj has distributed three million sanitary napkins so far, but what is that number in a country the size of India? As a country, we do not need thinkers but doers.” In fact, he is dismissive of the development tag that the social sector in India enjoys. “Why are we called development organizations? Development happens when you go from 0 to 10. Half of my country lives in the minus zone. To get from minus to zero is not development, it is survival. And the social sector is doing just that: helping poor Indians to survive from cold, from diseases as a result of lack of sanitary facilities or drinking water or food, or get them primary education. This is basic stuff.”
The award comes at a time when the non-profit sector has been at the receiving end of government scrutiny and distrust. However, Gupta feels that is just a part of life; there are ups and downs and the current mood vis-à-vis non-governmental organizations is just that—it does not impact anything in the long run. “Whatever is happening is a part of life. But yes, this (the prize) is a message that anyone doing a good job, which is needed in this country, is being recognized.”