When गूँज (Goonj) Came Home

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.

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Goonj Processing Centre at Sarita Vihar, New Delhi

 

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

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.

Check out the video on “Contribute, Don’t Discard”

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 collaborator and fellow resident, 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.

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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)

 

 

Experiencing Education

The notion of education conjures up images of class rooms, text books, tutorials and high-stress examinations in my mind but little did I realise that education can equally be a process of observation, discovery, self-learning, also associated with outdoors and a fun-filled experience. A few weeks ago, I was invited by Creya Learning, a Hyderabad based start-up that focuses primarily on tool kits and methods for experiential learning, to visit them. Creya had been mandated to run a summer camp being conducted by Telangana Social Welfare Residential Institutions Society (TSWREIS), an arm of the Telangana Government.

Establishing Context

To establish context, TSWREIS has been carrying out annual summer camps called Summer Samurai  across 70-80 locations in the state for the last seven to eight years. Basically, these are schools for children of Scheduled Tribes which means children are enrolled from the most backward districts and hail from the poorest families in the state. The students at camp are from secondary school, typically 5th to 12th graders. The highlight of my stay was a visit to this camp which took place a little ahead of Sangareddy town in rural Telangana.

Summer Samurai is the brain child of R S Praveen Kumar a retired Indian Police Services (IPS) officer. His vision is to provide world class experiential education to underprivileged kids. During my visit I was stunned to see the degree of English language fluency the children commanded and the constructibles they were working with. These included among many things working with robot and IOT kits. Kids were showing me see-saws they had made and were giving me a refresher on fulcrum and load. They were involved with story-boarding for movie creation and editing; outdoor survival; learning the knots; first aid classes through skit enactment and lots more. All of these I was a witness to. The joy, the excitement, the high fives and their warmth took me by surprise. This got me thinking and I spent several days reflecting on this visit.

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Students with their See-saw Model

 

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Story Boarding for Film Making and Editing

 

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Interacting with Students

Reflections

Two thoughts came to my mind. The first, a conversation I had had with the COO of a major NGO in the education space in India only a month before.  I was telling the COO about my daughter who had the privilege of going to J B Petit school, Mumbai and how as parents we could not have been more satisfied. Basically, we were discussing how I could bridge the gap between the exposure my daughter got and the girl child in the public school I had visited knowing very well that it could never be a perfectly level playing field. But my point to the COO was the need to at least narrow the gap between the privileged and non-privileged as much as possible. At that time, I only expressed an aspiration without knowing how this could be achieved. My visit to the Sangareddy school provided me the insight and clarity I was looking for.

The second was a conversation thread initiated by my colleague Unny Radhakrishnan from the first ILSS  cohort who put this post up recently in our WA group. To quote him “There are many non-profits in the education sector (including Central Square Foundation and the ones incubated by them). Most or all of them are focused on getting basic language, maths etc education fixed. Are there any initiatives in India where education is also encouraging children to think critically, question social practices etc and help them grow with a humanistic mindset? Otherwise aren’t all these efforts feeding into the same social/economic systems by providing more foot soldiers? The very same systems which development sector is questioning?”  I got the answer to this poser from my visit to the school in Sangareddy.

Answers and Conclusions

What Sangareddy taught me was whilst scale in education is crucial it should not be the most important dimension to the education challenge we are facing in India. The emphasis on churning out an army of foot soldiers just because it meets the demands of governments and donors may be adding to the development challenge rather than lessening it. A humanistic education calls for a significant enhancement of the experiential dimension in secondary education which is what is missing in our current system. Experiential education triggers a shift from studying to learning; from examinations to discovery and can supplement academics with a non-linear payoff.  It does not have to be restricted to an annual summer camp and in fact should be easy to instil in a student’s daily life. More than academic fluency, what we need is our children to acquire crucial 21st century skills of communication, collaboration and critical thinking. With the help of technology and with nominal investments in tablet devices one can bridge the gap between privileged and lesser privileged children.

So, I would advocate scale with quality. This will ensure not having to discard our current investments by undoing our education system a decade down the road. And it seems as if the likes of this wonderful IPS officer, the Government of Telangana and Creya Learning are showing us the way.

 

Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. Views expressed are personal.