This took place in late Jan 2018. I was attending the inaugural cohort of the India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) program at Sonipat and our program organisers got our entire cohort to pay a field visit to the headquarters of Goonj at New Delhi. Before we left Sonipat I had a token understanding of Goonj and its founder, the Magsaysay Award winner and Ashoka Fellow Anshu Gupta . Goonj, an NGO specialising in recycling clothes and used household or office articles is a bright spot in India’s social sector and celebrated its twentieth anniversary this month.
As part of our visit, we spent a half day at Goonj’s processing facility, which also included a lengthy conversation session with Anshu. The centre is organised very professionally and is designed to enable easy sorting and quick despatch of material to be re-used. Anshu, who is also known as India’s clothman, started his journey as a clothing provider for the poor and supporting menstrual hygiene for women who did not have the means. Says Anshu, “people don’t die because of (severe) cold; they die because of lack of clothing.” However, Goonj has come a long way since then and although clothing remains a crucial activity, it has diversified its efforts into building bridges, wells, canals, roads, drainage systems, rainwater-harvesting systems.
Goonj Processing Centre at Sarita Vihar, New Delhi
Excerpted from “100 Stories of Change, by Goonj”
Goonj stands for dignity, equality, fairness and wisdom. Several NGOs offer relevant and useful programs in the areas of rural development and disaster relief. However, there are two attributes, which stand out in the case of Goonj. First, it does not believe in outright gifting of urban discarded material save in the case of disaster relief operations. Remember that famous adage “Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” Goonj offers goods and material support to rural communities as a reward for undertaking rural development projects. Look at it another way, it is creating an alternative currency to sponsor rural initiatives. Second, very few NGOs can claim to create systems and cultural shifts the way Goonj does. It has been at the forefront of awareness campaigns such as moving “From Charity to Dignity”; moving from “Donor-beneficiary to Everyone a Stakeholder” from “Donation to Mindful Giving.” Goonj achieves this through conversations and talks; through print and social media campaigns, through summits and conclaves and through its recently introduced fellowship program.
Goonj is pretty much a pan-India operation working in 23 of 29 states. It has collection centres in eight states covering Chandigarh, Chennai, Delhi, Hissar, Solan, Bangalore, Indore, Mumbai, Jalandhar, Jaipur, Rangareddy, Rishikesh, and Kolkata. In 2018, it ran a yearlong collection campaign in partnership with Marks & Spencer. Besides clothing Goonj works with shoes, household goods, dry rations, stationary, books, utensils, used office furniture.
The visit was a revelation and on my return to Mumbai, one of the first things I did was to reach out to my housing society and along with my neighbour, Nikita Patel, organise a collection drive. In about a month from now, we will be organising our third collection drive for Goonj. My building society has been very encouraging and all we needed to do was to broadcast a message on the building WhatsApp group. This served like a match strike and the response has been so positive that we are now looking at spreading the collection drive to the entire neighbourhood.
Along with building residents during Goonj collection drives
My learnings from Goonj have been several. First, when you declutter, you actually end up feeling lighter and better. I remember my friend Ulrich from Germany who narrated his experience living in Orange County in the U.S. where the norm is to buy and discard soon. Although this does not break the cycle of consumption, it prevents you from amassing. Second, the wisdom of simplifying one’s needs although this might seem counter-intuitive because you would have less to discard. Finally, I remind myself frequently that discarding is not charity and my actions are serving my needs of inner wellbeing.
The literal meaning of Goonj in hindi is ‘echoes’ but Goonj is not just creating echoes of voices but also of echoes of efforts. It is doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways and is amplifying social impact. For me, Goonj has come home in more ways than one. Not only has it made an impact on my building and neighbourhood residents, its philosophy has found its way into several people’s hearts, mine included. That’s what I refer to when I say “Goonj has come home.”
Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own
Photo & Video Credits: Goonj (feature image; image from 100 Stories of Change); Chris Chros Films (Youtube Video link)