From clothes, food and toys to books and digital devices, our homes are evidence of the lives of excess we lead. Here’s the Lounge guide to decluttering while enriching lives
Diwali, the gifting season as we know it in India, has become a festival of excess. The gift-wrapped packages making their way across the city are getting bigger even as more courses are being added to our feasts. In this land of stark contrasts, wasteful habits become more pronounced during festivities. But several organizations have recognized the potential of turning our excess into valuable resources, whether in dealing with poverty, hunger or education. Goonj (Goonj.org), whose founder Anshu Gupta received the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2015 for his work in reusing “trash" to address development issues, has, as the award citation notes, transformed “the culture of giving in India". Here are some more ways that you can make a difference.
Dabbawalas, in their white shirts and Gandhi topis, delivering fresh hot lunch to office-goers across Mumbai are a familiar sight; the 5,000-strong army is legendary even outside the city. They make sure that about 200,000 people don’t go hungry, says Subhash Gangaram Talekar, general secretary of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, but along the way, on the streets and at railway stations, they are also witness to hordes picking up food from garbage dumps to eat. So, two years ago, to mark the first death anniversary of their “guru", long-time general secretary and Talekar’s father, Gangaram Talekar, a group of them began what the media started describing as a Roti Bank—a service where they pick up leftover food from individuals, weddings and other events, and distribute it to the poor. The 200-odd dabbawalas who consider it their social responsibility, and have volunteered to work for the Roti Bank, collect the food from 6-8pm, after their regular work hours, and distribute it within the hour to the homeless at places like the Andheri or Byculla railway stations. Talekar says they get 20-30 calls a day, and manage to feed at least 300 people daily, with the number going up to 500-600 on the weekends.
To donate fresh food (up to 6 hours from the time of cooking) in Mumbai, call the helpline numbers 9867221310 and 8652760542.
There are a couple of statistics on Feeding India’s website: 1.3 million children in India die of hunger every year; and 40% of all food goes waste. Three years ago, Ankit Kawatra, then 22, left a corporate job to start the social organization that would channel extra food from weddings and parties, companies and restaurants, to those in need of it. Kawatra, who has now been recognized by the UN as one of 17 young leaders promoting sustainable developments goals, started thinking of this after attending a lavish wedding in Gurugram, where leftover food that could have fed close to 5,000 people was being dumped. Feeding India, which runs with the support of over 7,000 volunteers across 50 cities, has food technologists on board to check the quality of food before it is distributed in shelters, especially to children, the elderly and the specially-abled. It has started providing food to underprivileged children to increase school enrolments, and (through the National Disaster Relief Programme) sends food for disaster relief—after the Assam floods this year, for instance. While it only picks up food if there’s enough to feed 40, it offers a database of shelters where individuals can donate smaller quantities themselves.
To donate food, call 9871178810 or visit the Feeding India app. For more details on how you can help, visit Feedingindia.org.
A unique community-led initiative in the National Capital Region (NCR) is trying to tackle the issue of food waste in homes. It started from Gurugram’s Suncity, a society with 1,800 flats where a few residents tried to establish waste segregation norms, and, as a continuation of their initiative, decided to tackle food waste as well. They set up a refrigerator at their gate where anyone could put in excess food—well-packed, with the name of the item and the date of placing it mentioned—and anyone was welcome to take it. According to Rahul Khera, one of those who started this initiative, about 30-35 packets of food get donated and taken away every day, and he himself checks twice a day to see if anything needs to be discarded. As word spread, three more societies, two in Gurugram and one in Noida, decided to replicate the Sharing Shelves model. Khera says that while 30-35 people have reached out to them for information, some have not been able to start it in their areas due to the reluctance of the resident welfare associations.
Vidyun Goel, 31, was in college when she began giving toys belonging to her, as well as those contributed by friends and family, to orphanages. She didn’t realize then that this would one day turn into a not-for-profit that would work across 17 states (“with one state being added every month," she says), helping to create over 5,000 toy libraries in partnership with schools, orphanages, social organizations and panchayats. Now, through collection centres run by volunteers, collection drives at schools and donations from toy companies, it has started sourcing all things useful to children, including toys, games, stationery, schoolbags, pencil boxes, etc.—everything but clothes and shoes. These items are sorted at its centre in Delhi, to create gender-neutral toy kits that are “age-graded as well as dependant on the intellectual capacity of the children" who will use them. The Toy Bank has also now started creating toy kits for autistic centres.
In 1984, when Devendra S. Desai started a toy library in Mumbai, the concept of play and recreation as an important tool in a child’s learning and emotional development was not common. The Children Toy Foundation, which was registered in 1986, has in these three decades worked with over 300 institutions, including schools, hospitals and prisons, to create toy libraries as well as play centres not just in Mumbai but across different states, says Desai. It has now also started operating mobile toy vans with dedicated staff that travel to children who are otherwise deprived of toys and games. The Children Toy Foundation accepts donations of toys and games, used but in good condition, though it prefers donations of new toys, and monetary donations to add to their number of mobile toy vans.
Do you find that you want to update the mobile phone you use, or your laptop, faster and faster every year? What do you do with all the old unused electronic equipment? The Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF)—a not-for-profit founded in 2002 with the aim of pulling communities living in socio-economic backwardness out of “digital darkness"—has started a programme called MeraByte that can help you, and help them. People, largely firms, are encouraged to contribute their e-waste, which is recycled for reuse in the 345 communities across India that DEF works with. In the past couple of years, says Osama Manzar, founder and director of DEF, they have received 395 refurbished PCs, 475 smartphones and 25 iPads, as well as recycled 100 laptops, 20 digital cameras, projectors and selfie sticks each, 10 Android tablets and 2,000 pen drives. The idea, he says, is also to create a sense of responsibility and awareness among companies to ensure they do not treat these as waste.
When he was still in college, Mumbai-based Shriyans Bhandari, now 23, came up with the idea of reusing the soles of old shoes and making slippers out of them. He started the social enterprise GreenSole in December 2013, aiming to donate the slippers to children in rural areas. They are now working in the states of Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat. A large number in India don’t have access to footwear, says Bhandari, and this also results in infections. As many as 66,000 old shoes have so far been donated to them, with 40% coming from shoe firms and the rest from individuals. In an attempt to remain a self-sustaining venture, GreenSole, to supplement the help it receives from individual and corporate CSR funding, also has a retail wing for its shoes.
To donate a pair of shoes and find the nearest collection centre, visit here.
The community library project
In 2008, fiction writer Mridula Koshy and poet Michael Creighton started volunteering at a school in Delhi run by the NGO Deepalaya, reading to children with little access to books. The reading group grew to become a library, first from a single cupboard, then a room. The school shut down two years ago, and the 3,000-odd books began gathering dust. In June 2015, however, Koshy along with others revived the library in the space now known as the Ramditti Narang Deepalaya Learning Centre. This year, The Community Library Project was registered as a trust, “formalizing our work as a band of activists and volunteers seeking to create a library movement in Delhi", says Koshy. Books expand people’s thinking and lead to a free exchange of ideas, she says—they should not be kept behind glass doors. In two years, 500,000 books have been issued to children here. Four months ago, they opened another space in Sikanderpur in Gurugram, in collaboration with the NGO Agrasar. With the books donated to them, they’ve also started supporting other libraries, in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur.
The not-for-profit children’s book publisher Pratham Books has since 2004 been finding ways to get books into the hands of children in areas where they have little access to them. Its StoryWeaver project allows users to download, print and read books, and even allows stories to be translated into languages that children would find more accessible. In 2015, it started Donate-a-Book, a crowdsourcing platform that enables non-profits, schools and others to raise funds for books. “We would receive requests from organizations which were unable to buy books. The platform connects those who need books and those who want to bridge the gap. From a school for children with special needs to a reading volunteer who wants to start a library in her hometown, Donate-a-Book helps raise funds to supply books from Pratham Books in multiple Indian languages," says Maya Hemant, senior manager, community and outreach, Pratham Books. Donate-a-Book has run 261 campaigns in these two years, and 112,000 books have been donated in places like Ukhrul in Manipur and Panna in Madhya Pradesh. “At times, when we receive mails from people who want to donate books that they already have, we try to connect them with organizations on the platform and they can then take the discussion offline," says Hemant.
Katha has long been working in the fields of literacy and publishing, bringing “children living in poverty into reading and quality education". Its I Love Reading (ILR) programme, started in 2006, seeks to help children—in Delhi’s municipal schools and slums—improve their reading skills through stories. “Under this, we also train teachers to use Katha’s “story pedagogy" to engage children in learning, developing an interesting curriculum, and linking learning to community issues to ensure education is relevant," says Parvinder Kaur, executive director, Katha, on email. She writes that the ILR programme reaches over 900 communities in the NCR, but the idea has also been implemented in Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu through capacity-building, teacher training and reading carnivals. Besides its crowdfunding campaign on Ketto to buy books for community-owned libraries in Delhi’s slums, Katha also accepts donations of books, preferably in Hindi. “Storybooks for the 4-12 age group would be of utmost value as we aim to help children discover the joy of learning through them," says Parvinder Kaur.