28th Lecture on October 2, 2015 by Mr Anshu Gupta, Ramon Megsasay Recipient 2015 and Founder, GOONJ.
“Poverty is a big disaster in South Asia” – Anshu Gupta Bitter cold does not kill poor, lack of clothing kills. Ramon Magsaysay Award Winner, Mr Anshu Gupta delivers a moving speech on 28th Foundation Day of BIMTECH.
Some incidents left a strong impression on me… the story of Habib Bhai, for example. Many years ago after my journalism studies, one winter morning in Old Delhi I read a line in Hindi ‘Dilli police ka laash dhone wala’ (the picker of abandoned dead bodies} on a rickshaw. A bit shocked and intrigued I followed the rickshaw and then started spending time with Habib and his blind wife, Amma Begum, to understand this strange profession.
I talked with him and accompanied him to see the entire process – from the information provided by a child about a dead body in a park to going there to pick it up. Two statements from him and his little daughter shook me completely. One, when Habib said, “In winters my work goes up”, and I found that sometimes he picked up 10 to 12 dead bodies in 24 hours. He said this was double the number he picked up in summer ! This meant more deaths on the road simply due to cold.
And the second line came from his little daughter, who very innocently told me, “when I feel cold, I hug the dead body and sleep. It does not trouble me, it does not turn around!”. This was happening in a city where people have so much stuff in their wardrobes that they don’t wear and yet don’t know whom to give to.
I found it tough to accept the fact that “people die of cold” because my logic ways: winter is not like an earthquake whose tremors kill people or a flood where excess water drowns people! If cold kills people then I should also have died. I survived because I had clothes and the person on the road died because he didn’t have anything to cover himself. So it’s not cold. It’s lack of clothing which kills people.
I also realised that in the vast list of development subjects clothing is not even a topic although when we talk about three basic needs we say – food, clothing and shelter.
On changes in middle class’ attitude on giving away
I have seen many changes from the time we began back in 199. For one, there is much larger participation of the middle class in giving, especially for disasters. We have been constantly speaking to people about the do’s and don’ts of giving. This has in turn, embedded a culture of mindful giving. People do think before giving their trash in the name of charity.
I think the biggest change has been that social or development work is no longer the domain of a few. People in general are playing a bigger part and taking an interest.
On Disasters and their impact on poor classes
Also we have found that disasters tend to hit the poor the hardest. That’s why we look at disasters as an opportunity to catch public attention to the needs of people and geographies which people don’t generally notice. We need to channelise as much material as we possibly can and bring resources to the area under long-term rehabilitation work.
We have also realised that people even though they are hit by disaster, want to retain their dignity. Whether it’s the Bihar floods or the Uttarakhand floods, people who got relief material at the time of the disaster later came back and did community work under our Cloth for Work initiative even though no additional material was given to them. It was their way of paying back for what they received as relief material.
About Ramon Magsaysay Award Recipient, Mr Anshu Gupta & His NGO ‘GOONJ’
Anshu Gupta won the Ramon Magsaysay Award this year for ‘transforming the culture of giving in India” and “treating cloth as a sustainable development resource for the poor”. It is an initiative he began in 1999 when he left the corporate sector to start Goonj. Goonj would collect clothes from the middle class in cities and take it to the poor in rural areas. It was a simple idea with enormous potential and in 16 years Goonj has reached out to the poorest districts in the country in 21 states.
It also has a lot of learning in disaster management. Goonj loads trucks with relief material and finds its way to the spot, handling logistics and cooperating with the local adminsitratin. When an earthquake struck Nepal recently, Goonj was there to help. But, says Gupta, for him the worst ongoing disaster is poverty.
Over the years Goonj has found a mayriad ways to use discards for development. The non-profits initiatives are uniquely trash-based and not cash based. Villagers pinpoint what they need. It could be repairing a bridge or a school. Goonj pays them in cloth in exchange for their labour. It has created livelihoods by starting small manufacturing units. At last Sujni Centre in Rishikesh makes rugs, mattresses and quilts by stitching layers of cloth. Other units manufacture inexpensive sanitary pads.
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