Cover for the Poor

  • Shilpy Arora / FG
  • India
  • Jul 19, 2013

A resident of Sukhasan Village in Bihar, Rani had never been to school till the age of 9, as it was located 10 km away from her village - across the river. However, the situation drastically improved when a 240 ft x 6 ft bamboo bridge was set up on the river by the villagers themselves. The project was implemented with the help of an NGO, Goonj. Interestingly, the NGO used just clothes as motivation, and involved the villagers to construct the river. “We neither spent nor earned any money for making the bridge. Volunteers of Goonj motivated us and gave us good clothes in return. Now my children have new clothes to wear. They have schoolbags and books too,” smiles Rani’s mother

“Over a hundred villagers donated bamboo sticks and a few days of labour. We supplied nails and wire. The whole thing cost us just Rs. 2,000. Besides connecting the villages, the bridge impacted the mind-set of the people. They realised the importance of working together, and self-reliance,” says a volunteer. The government later provided some financial help so that motorcycles could also use the bridge. Today, it is a concrete bridge. 

The ‘Cloth for Work’ initiative of Goonj also worked wonders in Churali Village of Orissa. Motivated by the offer of new clothes, the villagers decided to clean up the village pond, which was the only source of water in the village. “More than 500 people got together to clean the pond. They got many new clothes and school supplies in return. The best part is that till today the villagers have been actively involved in keeping the pond clean,” says a volunteer.

Started in 1999, Goonj provides the underprivileged in rural areas an access to clothing, school supplies and sanitary napkins. Founder Anshu Gupta started by inviting people to contribute the under-utilised material from their homes, offices and schools. He gradually built a team of volunteers and trained them to make the best use of discarded pieces of cotton cloth and other ‘waste’ material. “We created a taskforce of women to help transform cloth into sanitary pads, which were to be not only safe but eco-friendly,” recounts Anshu who started his career as a freelance journalist and later left a corporate job to establish Goonj

Why Clothes?

Anshu, as a journalist, was working on a story of a rickshaw-puller, Habib, in Delhi. Habib used to carry abandoned dead bodies in his rickshaw, and dispose them respectfully at a funeral ground. Gupta was intrigued when he learnt that while Habib collected just four or five bodies a day in the summer, the number sometimes touched 20 a day in the winters. The reason was that many of the under-privileged were dying just due to a lack of clothing. “That is when I realised that we have totally ignored the clothing needs of the poor. Many organisations work on their need for food, education and health, but their need for clothes has never been highlighted or even ‘felt’,” feels Anshu. He also believes that clothing gives the under-privileged a sense of dignity and self-respect

Besides, it is easy for most of the people living in cities to donate clothes. It is easy to collect clothes from India’s burgeoning middle-class, which spends a lot on clothing,” says Meenakshi, Anshu’s wife.

Transforming Clothes 

Most of the times villagers are reluctant to use discarded clothes, and so Goonj decided not to distribute worn clothes directly to the villagers. “For us, those who give clothes and those who receive are equal,” says Anshu. The NGO therefore involved volunteers to recycle the clothes, pack them nicely and give them to villagers in a respectful manner. The NGO also decided to not distribute any clothes free of cost. Villagers have to necessarily work on a project in their village, to earn clothes and various other items made of waste material.

Goonj makes good use of almost anything. It repairs saris and woollens, which are in the highest demand in rural India. It recycles denim into schoolbags, T-shirts into undergarments and cloth scraps into quilts. Besides, it produces affordable sanitary napkins. Today, Goonj distributes around two lakhs sanitary napkins every month among rural women. The volunteers first sterilize the cotton clothes, then cut them and stitch them to make sanitary pads, bed sheets and handkerchiefs.

How it Works

With nine collection centers across the country, the NGO provides about two million pounds of materials - including clothes, utensils, books, school bags, footwear, toys and many other items - to rural areas. The NGO has partnered with more than 250 distribution agencies, which assist them in distributing material to over half a million people in 21 states in India. It is interesting to see how the Centre uses a colour-coded sorting system, which is of great help for illiterate women. Owing to its unique ‘Cloth for Work’ initiative, Goonj has truly evolved into an organisation that has brought about civic and social development in some of the underdeveloped rural pockets in the country. With this initiative the NGO has also given many of the deprived their right to a dignified life.


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