'As you pursue your goals, obstacles become irrelevant' - Ashoka Fellow & Magsaysay Award Winner Anshu Gupta

Anshu K. Gupta, Ashoka Fellow and Founder of Goonj observed that two Indias exist side-by-side: the increasingly wealthy, urban India and the impoverished, neglected rural India. Anshu realized that the vast stocks of everyday necessities - from clothes to medicines - lying as idle surplus in the homes of the rich can be a substantial economic resource for the country if channeled efficiently to the rural poor. His organization, Goonj, is leading a massive transfer of goods spanning the country.

Anshu has developed a systematic approach to sourcing, collecting, and distributing resources with established nodes and a network of 300 volunteers with 35 collection centers, over 100 partner groups operating in 19 states. On the demand side, Anshu ensures that Goonj precisely matches the needs of poor communities, through detailed market surveys that carefully analyze the different region-specific lifestyle patterns to gather data on their needs. Anshu is turning cloth giving from a ‘charitable act’ into a part of the village development process through his ‘cloth for work’ programme. Wherever his material reaches, beneficiaries take up a development activity for their own village and get clothes as wages. His Changemakers award winning initiative ‘School to School’ is building up relationship between urban and rural schools by using underutilized school material as a resource. By using the most worthless urban surplus he is addressing the most basic but taboo subject of a clean cloth sanitary napkin for the village women.

Anshu Gupta is now one of the two Magsaysay Award winners for 2015

How does the Magsaysay Award make a difference to your work?

I think we’ll keep on operating as usual. Nothing will change. We stand by our goal – to grow as an idea, rather than as an organization. A major challenge before us is to ensure that more and more people replicate the work we’re doing, and to understand the ethos of distribution by bridging the massive gap of social and economic inequities between urban and rural India – urban prosperity and rural poverty.

What inspired you to give up your well-paid corporate job and venture into an unknown territory of voluntary service, and set up Goonj?

My professional journey began as a copywriter in an ad agency, followed by a stint in a public sector enterprise and finally, as a corporate communication manager. But in 1998, I left and formed Goonj--a voluntary organization, with a mission to address the most basic, but ignored need of clothing and the multifaceted role it plays in villages across India. We felt that a large number of poor persons in the country lack clothes to wear, and many die in winter due to it. Goonj is a movement working in 21 states. Through its staff, thousands of volunteers and grass root partner organizations, it redistributes contributed items, and processes cloth into essential articles for the poor and the victims of natural disasters like flood and earthquake. .

Didn’t you face obstacles?

Initially, it was a difficult task. When you do something in public or enter into public life, several people start doubting your integrity and start questioning you. I too, faced these kinds of problems in the initial phase. I still remember an incident from the early phase of my voluntary work. I had set up a stall in a fair and was wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. A person saw me and sarcastically remarked “See that NGO-wala in jeans”. I was taken aback for a moment. It happened because people have a perception that an NGO worker will wear a Khadi kurta and pyjama! Obstacles are a part of life in every field.

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This article was originally published on August 3, 2015
Related TopicsDevelopment & Prosperity, Poverty alleviation, Environment & Sustainability, Recycling, Social Entrepreneurship

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