Some call him a bridge maker between rural and urban communities. Others credit him with the development of a parallel cashless economy, easily replicable across the world. However, as I wait for my lunch guest Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, it's not these lofty epithets that come to mind. Instead, images of its collection centre in Delhi play on a loop in my head. When I visited Goonj earlier in the week, I was impressed to see how used clothes, electronics, shoes, pencil stubs and other sundry city discards were being repaired and reinvented there to create resources of value to cash-strapped villagers. The idea of Goonj seemed simple, commonsensical even. Yet, in 2012, Goonj was chosen by NASA and the US state department as a "Game Changing Innovation" and in the same year, Forbes magazine listed Gupta as one of India's most powerful rural entrepreneurs.
When Gupta walks into Ssense, Suryaa Sofitel Hotel's new coffee shop, he looks more like your average man on the street than a game-changing innovator. This perception changes the minute he starts to speak. "It's not been an easy journey," he says, settling down in his chair. "India doesn't have a culture of giving. Motivating the rich to part with things lying unused in their homes - and the poor, to work to fulfil their needs instead of getting them as free handouts - has been tough," he adds. Yet today, Goonj is operational in 21 states across the country, transferring over 1,000 tonnes of used clothes, household goods, and other essential items from cities to villages annually.
The Goonj model is simple, he explains. "In our Cloth for Work programme, we suggest villagers that in return for their undertaking some community service - digging a well, making a road, cleaning a lake and so on - we'll give them whatever they need without compromising their dignity," says Gupta. With this model, villagers in Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh) have built a water tank; de-silted a well in Chapra (Bihar); built a school in Sitamani, Bihar - performing a total of over 1,500 community acts so far. Gupta is equally enthusiastic about their School to School programme, which supplies books, recycled stationery, school bags, tiffin boxes and water bottles to village schools. "When a child in Delhi throws away a school bag because the cartoon character on it isn't fashionable anymore, it has the potential of becoming the magnet that draws a rural student to school..." he says. Thus, the Goonj model not only reduces cash expenditure in low-income households, resulting in a small but critical expansion of their spending power - it also becomes a non-monetary tool for social and environmental change.
At this juncture, the menus arrive rather fancily on iPads. In sharp contrast is our waiter, who's seemingly been trained in a dhaba. He takes down our order, makes a quick calculation and says, "you've ordered a salad and soup. This will cost you Rs xxxx per head. Instead, why don't you go for the salad buffet, very well-priced at Rs yyyy?" I'm mortified by this discussion of money in front of my guest, but Gupta is amused. We decide on the salad buffet, if only to get the waiter off our backs. Over soup, he tells me how the idea of Goonj came to him.
"As a student at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, I often went to Old Delhi. There I met Habib, the professional 'unclaimed body collector'. One December night, I accompanied him to collect an unidentified body at Khooni Darwaza. Wearing nothing but a thin cotton shirt, the man had clearly died of cold..." he reminisces. That was when Gupta realised that clothing as a basic human right was often overlooked; brought to the fore only as a disaster-relief measure. We get some salad, and he resumes his story, telling me how Goonj was eventually born in 1999, with 67 clothes that his wife and he had collected. "I didn't want to give these clothes as an act of charity. Charity strips people of self-respect," he says. "Thus, the concept of Cloth for Work came into being."
What inspired him to start Goonj, I ask. His life, he says, has been shaped by a near fatal accident he had in his late teens. "I was bedridden for almost a year and doctors feared I may never walk again," he says, "this experience made me empathetic, thoughtful... it changed my life." It also gave him time to read, write and reflect extensively (he writes both poetry and prose in Hindi). In the government hospital in Dehradun, the doctor treating Gupta asked his parents for a bribe. "My father was a scrupulously honest government officer. He refused to bribe the doctor. The doctor became angry and did not treat my foot fracture with care. As a result, even today, I can't stand for long periods without experiencing pain. But I don't mind it, for it reminds me of my father's refusal to give a bribe," he says. The young college boy worked hard to belie the doctor's prognosis. Today, it is impossible to tell that Gupta ever had a problem walking, and he keeps his near-constant pain well-hidden from public gaze.
We move to the dessert counter to find a tempting ice cream selection, where the chef is mixing flavours on a frozen slab of marble with toasted nuts, fruit, cake and other toppings - definitely the best part of our meal. Childlike in his enjoyment of ice cream, Gupta tells me about the project closest to his heart, Not Just a Piece of Cloth. "In villages and slums, where women and girls don't have enough to clothe themselves, menstrual hygiene is really poor. At Goonj, we repurpose old cotton into hygienic pads and use them to generate awareness about hygiene and the myths associated with menstruation," he says. Goonj has, this week, started a campaign to lift the veil of silence surrounding menstruation. "We want people from all walks of life to express their thoughts, experiences and opinions about this subject, so that we can bring it into the mainstream," he says.
Gupta's phone has been ringing off the hook, so I signal for the bill. The waiter comes to me. If I want a bill, he says, he'd have to charge me for the full buffet. Do I really need it, he asks? The correct bill arrives after much unnecessary argument. Clearly, the hotel needs to work on both ethics and etiquette of its staff. Gupta dismisses my apologies for the poor service at lunch - but then he's no stranger to disasters. Over a quick, post-prandial coffee, Gupta tells me that Goonj was one of the first agencies to respond to the 2013 Uttarakhand flash floods. "Last year's survivors are yet to recover, and we're fearful of what this year's rains will bring..." he says somberly. "But that's just in Uttarakhand. People don't often see that they're surrounded by daily disasters. For someone who can't afford a blanket, every winter is a disaster. And women without access to hygienic sanitary protection face disasters every month!"
As we walk out, I ask Gupta about Goonj's future plans. "Someone recently referred to Goonj as India's largest non-monetary resource agency. I like the term, but I'd like to see Goonj expand more, not just as an organisation but as an idea that can be replicated across the world. There's so much work left to be done..."