Creating Paradigms: Where Trash Is Currency | Anshu Gupta

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


“With Goonj one thing which is very clear is that we do not want to grow just as an organisation we want to grow as an idea.” – Anshu Gupta

Listen in to this podcast conversation with Anshu Gupta, Founder Director of Goonj.

Khemka Forum Podcast Series: Transcript of the podcast with Anshu Gupta

Interviewer: Shivraj Parshad, The PRactice



Shivraj: Anshu Gupta, thank very much for speaking to the Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

Anshu Gupta: Thank you.

Shivraj: So Anshu, you know I don’t think an understanding of Goonj can happen without actually visiting the processing unit, it was an eye opening visit, what was the trigger and how did you innovate with turning what would seem to be discarded material into something useful?

Anshu Gupta: I think that way all of us know that when people talk about so called donation, the first and the last thing for almost 90 percent people actually is old cloth. And very proudly people often say that I want to donate cloth. That is in any case is an absolutely wrong and an over statement because you never donate – you discard. So you need to be thankful to the people who use the second hand material. But we did understand that there is a very critical gap because cloth has never been a development subject. When you talk about three basic needs you say food, cloth and shelter but in the list of development subjects it is not there. And in a country like India or in the larger world where you say that half the population do not get two meals a day.. with a very limited vision we often think people are hungry. But we need to understand that people are not only hungry. If someone is not getting food that person is not getting anything on this earth. So, there is a huge gap, there is a huge demand also, so how do we really plug it? Shall we do a charity or donation? Where we collect this charitable item and distribute it? Or we convert it into a resource, so that we can take care of the dignity of people because you don’t find beggars in the villages, that is a typical city phenomena. So that’s how this huge cloth for work came up. People work in the village, take up development activity, and then people are rewarded or so you can say paid in material.

Shivraj: And do you see this becoming the currency, given the magnitude of the problem that we face in India, do you see this becoming a currency as opposed to people coming with large funds and aid?

Anshu Gupta: This is one of the most say easily available, easily acceptable currency, okay? It solves all the problems, because instead of throwing away material in the landfill site or selling 10 rupees a kg, now it is converted into something which has worth of hundreds and thousands of rupees in the village, simple. I mean this 50 percent population whenever if they are wearing a piece of cloth or a shoe be assured that it is not a new thing, because if you are buying from the second hand market, if someone in the remote village is buying a trouser for 40 rupees.. today in 40 rupees you don’t even get a zip. So it is a second hand, just that you are positioning it in that manner. Which as in our work we say, it is the genesis of a parallel economy. Which is maybe not cash based but which is trash based, where trash is the currency, just that you have to match the needs and you have to dignify it.

Shivraj: You talked about dignity, you talked about the cloth for work program, you have a number of programs running, a distribution channel that is obviously massive, 1000 kilos going out a month. Tell us a bit about how you sort of brought together the partnership model and distribution and actually used them to create campaigns of a certain sensitive nature?

Anshu Gupta: If you see our job and you can actually divide it in three different parts. We deal with almost a 1000 tonnes of material in a year now, first is the collection. For collection we are there with huge number of volunteers, resident welfare associations, corporates, CSR, schools, colleges and all. Everybody in urban India has something to give. Second part which is the processing, this is another important part and is done by the paid team of Goonj which is about 150 full time people, the major problem with donation is that you give what you have.. you never give what people need, so it was very important for us to plug that gap also and send the material which is needed in a particular region, so that’s the second part. Third part, which is the most important part, the implementation, that how do we really make use of it in a very dignified manner where it is not distributed, it is not thrown away or something and where we match the needs of the people. For that not only do we have an implementation team but we actually tie up with local organisations, many say social activists, social entrepreneurs, grassroots movements, panchayats, anybody and everybody where we find there is certain reliability factor and people are working on ground, we tie up, there is a strong due diligence process for that. And through them we implement all of our initiatives because it’s not limited to cloth. It is utensil, footwear, generator, computer, furniture – all kind of material we deal with, so we just match the needs of people.

Shivraj: And the two things that really stood out were your women’s sanitation program and the disaster relief program. So how have you streamlined the entire process because it is a huge magnitude, a huge scale that you have to actually address?

Anshu Gupta: One thing which you need to understand about our work is that it is something like laying pipelines in the country. Like a lot of people did the fibre optics and now they are making use of it. So we have laid the pipelines in the county, where we develop the systems in urban India, in rural India and in the middle path. So in normal course you could put in clothes, utensils, footwear you know in the same channel which is from the city to the villages. If you have to work on education you talk about the education material, toys and other material. If you talk about sanitation or health right from old spectacles to medicines to crutches to wheelchair to the sanitary pads which is one of the most ignored part that goes in the channel. The moment a disaster happens you again have an absolute readymade channel available with you, where you do not have to look for people on the ground, with whom shall we work? What do these people need? No, for us we can become the fastest… reaching people in those areas not because we are expert in that but just because we have been able to you know have a pipeline. So the moment you add certain rice, wheat, bread and tent and whatever is needed that becomes your immediate disaster relief work also. So that’s how the country now has a ready channel where reliability is taken care of because the partners who are there they go through routine due diligence process. Sanitation in any case is a very major issue, I mean especially the sanitary napkin part. One thing which we often say is that this is one of the most ignored thing, I mean in a country and a world where you literally spend millions of dollars or rupees in just you know organising certain kinds of workshops and seminars on safe motherhood, on safe childhood, the fact remains that you do not talk about sanitary pads.

Shivraj: And through the distribution I notice that there is also a lot of sensitivity, education and awareness that you are creating as well?

Anshu Gupta: It is important. Because you know with Goonj one thing which is very clear is that we do not want to grow just as an organisation we want to grow as an idea. An idea can never grow until and unless you really plug all the holes and you have a certain kind of holistic approach not in papers but practically, people who are working on it, people who are part of it, people who get certain kind of benefit out of it. Everybody needs to speak the same language.

Shivraj: And lastly I think the most important thing is and you sort of said this right up front when we began our conversation that you actually need to know what people need. So for social entrepreneurs and those starting out and listening to this conversation, what would be the 3 to 4 key things that they must bear in mind when they move into the sector and start operating on the ground?

Anshu Gupta: So I think first, very important thing is that you do not become the decision maker, that’s the most important part which is there with the government with the bureaucracy, with the corporates, CSRs, NGOs, everybody – that you decide what people need. In the cloth for work initiative as typically in a bureaucratic manner we can also say that every village needs a road, but no, maybe one village wants clean water…. for another village a small bamboo bridge is a priority, so we cannot dictate terms, number one. Number two, please make all the village people, all the slum people or anybody for whom you are working as a stakeholder, that’s important because you are not a do- gooder at the end of the day, you are not a government, you will never be able to remove poverty that way, simple. You are just trying to tackle certain issues. So when we give clothes to people, when we give other material to people at the end of the day we free up their meagre resources, we might not be able to remove poverty but their very meagre resources are now freed up to take care of health, education whatever their priorities are. We are also not here to fix up their priorities, it’s their life at the end of the day. Third, which is very important, which is often ignored in the entire development work whether it is done by the NGOs, many entrepreneurs, CSR or government, we do not take care of the local wisdom. You know it might not be nurtured at one of those leading management institutes and design institutes. A lady who can create beautiful painting on Mithala walls or in Madhubani or something on the floor in south India has a perfect design sense, can actually measure with hands without any equipment and also knows how to work with the limited resources. So do we have that wisdom? No. We have a small wisdom which is nurtured in the last almost 10, 20, 30 years of our education system, but this is a very raw wisdom, its very crude wisdom, that is the real wisdom. If you value that, you end up spending much lesser resources. And when people make it, people maintain it. So even the maintenance cost of any of your initiatives is much lower, I mean go to the bridges which are made by us, go to the well, which we people have dug, this was 100 percent as per the local wisdom as per the local need, done by the local people. So they maintain it, you don’t even go there, but they’re maintaining it. So, so called very big buzz word of ‘sustainability’ is already there, just because you valued those local people.

Shivraj: And finally what makes Anshu Gupta tick, what is it that gives you the most relief and the most satisfaction with the work that’s been done so far.

Anshu Gupta: I think one very basic is that we have been able to defy a lot of norms and rules that gives us a lot of kick, you know when people say you don’t fall in our parameters, so we will not give you fund, we enjoy. We say okay fine we will see, you know how do we do it, because ultimately this is our dhanda, you know. This is our bread and butter, this is our wisdom, this is our keeda, this is our passion so it has to go on. You support, you don’t support, that’s up to you. It’s very simple, you know.. You support, it’s wonderful, we will acknowledge that and we will appreciate that, but if you don’t, it’s fine. Lot of norms, you know that you have to have this kind of plan before this, this is how the data has to be there, this is how a fundraising department needs to be there. We have been able to defy. We publically say that 50 percent of our money needs to come from individual contributions. You might say that, then you are not a social enterprise, but who cares, I mean we never started to become a social entrepreneur. You know I did not know the spelling of entrepreneur, how may e’s come in it? We had something, something was bothering us, which was a trigger and that’s how we started on it.

Shivraj: Anshu Gupta, thank very much for speaking to the Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

Anshu Gupta: Pleasure.


Views expressed here are solely that of the person interviewed and may not represent the views of The Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation.