‘What matters most is the will and intent to do good’

“The biggest asset of India’s villagers is their self-respect,” Anshu Gupta has been quoted as saying. “You don’t see beggars in villages,” he adds. The founder of Goonj, a nonprofit with an exemplary list of accomplishments to its name, and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2015, Mr Gupta speaks from experience gained by working with the rural poor for more than two decades in multiple social development programmes.

Goonj began in 1998 with an idea as original as it was impactful: using cloth as metaphor and material to meet the basic needs of people in rural India. Goonj employed cloth as a new development currency to mobilise, motivate and empower marginalised folks in backward regions to work on issues such as education, health, infrastructure, environment and menstrual hygiene.

Under Goonj’s ‘dignity for work’ initiative, villagers identify their issues, evolve their own solutions and then put in efforts, wisdom and natural resources to build schools, roads, wells and more. Goonj rewards their labour with customised ‘family kits’ — which include clothes, dry rations, utensils and footwear — for every person who participates in the endeavour.

Mr Gupta, who overcame a near-debilitating injury suffered in a road accident when he was a teenager, opens up in this interview with Christabelle Noronha on the personal and the professional, on rural development and the people at the heart of it. Edited excerpts:

Rural development in India has come to mean different things to different people. What, in its essence, does it mean to you?

To understand rural development, I think we must first understand the symbiotic relationship between India’s cities and villages. Our sustenance in cities is made possible by the villages of India, right from the food on our table to cheap labour for our homes and factories. It all comes from the villages of India. The unequal allocation of resources, opportunities and policy-level attention to cities has meant that village India has lagged behind, even in the bare basics of life. Correcting this imbalance and inequality is rural development.

Valuing and dignifying the role and contribution of our farmers, artisans and craftspeople is vital and innovation must be a key component of rural development. Also, we have to utilise rural wisdom and efforts to nurture and build our natural resources. Last but not the least, you have to stand with and learn from rural communities in preparing for and dealing with natural disasters.

Development must include the welfare of the individual and the community, and this should be in rhythm with nature. Development has to value people, their agency, skills and knowledge. It must ensure that nature is nurtured when decisions are made for human beings. Anything that doesn’t enhance human dignity and agency, anything that pollutes, destroys and erodes nature can’t be development. These two factors are closely intertwined.

" Development must include the welfare of the individual and the community, and this should be in rhythm with nature.”

We have put human dignity and agency at the centre of our development work. This is especially pronounced in villages we are involved with, where the poor are usually conditioned to depend on outsiders to take decisions about their lives. Instead, when we mobilise and motivate them to take these decisions and work with them, they start to value not just their own natural resources but also their own wisdom.

How did the idea of employing cloth as a development resource for the poor develop? Did you expect it to bloom in the way it has?

Cloth as an issue evolved organically. I often saw homeless people on Delhi’s roads shivering in the winter cold. As I started going deeper into the need for clothing, many personal stories came alive, especially about how middle-class families invest in good clothes to make sure they look dignified. I realised how we all first judge people by their clothes, whether someone is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, urban or rural. Our work of 15 years on menstrual hygiene also started as a story of cloth.

What stood out for me in the initial years was the fact that even though cloth was a basic necessity it still wasn’t listed as a neglected need on any global, national or regional development agency’s agenda. That’s where our journey started. Over the years, cloth has become more of a metaphor for the many ignored needs of poor people. Dignity is the other basic need of any human being, rich or poor, just as with cloth. We have tried to weave in these two very different needs in our development work.

When urban India responded by contributing their surplus cloth and other material happily — feeling satisfied in channelising their discards for a good cause — it turned into a win-win idea. The biggest breakthrough was when some years ago a rural community that we had mobilised and motivated to identify their own problems and solutions made a bamboo bridge as part of our initiative. There was no monetary transaction; they only got our family kits as reward.

You have spoken about the necessity of changing the culture of charity in this country. What exactly does this imply in a milieu where the ‘art of giving’, particularly to nonreligious causes, has found meagre expression?

Not just in India, I feel we need to change the culture of charity globally, as it makes the giver feel superior and the recipient a bit inferior, or lesser. Charity inherently places some of us as givers — of money, material, expertise, solutions, etc — and the poor as recipients of this ‘help’.

The underprivileged have an equal right and need to be valued as equal stakeholders and participants, feels Mr Gupta
The underprivileged have an equal right and need to be valued as equal stakeholders and participants, feels Mr Gupta

Charity is okay for some scenarios like disaster relief, till a person is able to get back on his or her feet. But I strongly believe that any development work that’s built on the unequal paradigm of charity cannot lead to sustained deep-rooted development.

The Covid-19 outbreak appears to have brought governments, NGOs and charitable foundations together like never before. What will it take to make such collaboration the norm in the social development sphere?

I feel the way civil society and social entrepreneurs have responded to the Covid crisis in India is a case study — not just for our country but the entire world — on the role and relevance of the development sector in society. The sector has shown how it can rise to the occasion when the need arises, going beyond structures and issues and collaborating to achieve a common objective of greater good.

Cross-sectoral collaborations have happened swiftly and efficiencies have been derived to respond to the disaster. The pandemic is a great opportunity to learn from, to respond and to correct systemic wrongs. Having said that, we should not be waiting for a disaster to collaborate or respond since poverty is an ongoing and colossal disaster for the majority of humanity.

What, in your view, are the principal challenges involved in seeding and nurturing social entrepreneurship in India’s rural reaches. What works and what does not?

When we started Goonj back in 1998, Meenakshi (my cofounder, partner and wife) and I were not even aware of terms like social entrepreneurship, seeding and incubation. Did that stop us from reaching wherever we are right now? No, it didn’t.

Gradually, through various platforms and exposure, we understood the issues and the jargon. Everybody, whether an individual or an entity, has a list of things that work and those that don’t. What matters most is the will and intent to do good; summon that and things will fall in place.

If you had a wish list to improve India and its well-being, what would the three main points on it be?

One, I would want to see rural India produce, make and market for rural India. Two, I would want to see all development work being led by the dignity principle, meaning the poor should be included, mapped and counted for the contribution of their skills, efforts and resources. This is how their voice can be prioritised in any development work. Three, as a country we should allocate more resources to our villages and our farmers.

How have you been shaped by the experiences of your youth — of growing up in small-town India, of suffering what is a lifelong disability and of dealing with financial concerns?

My experiences are the experiences of a majority of lower middle-class people in this country. The challenges I faced took out the fear of ups and downs in life. Early on I came to accept them as part of life and work. I guess my understanding of the importance of dignity in a person’s and a family’s life, the struggle for little things and how that affects people — all of those insights have been seeded by my upbringing.

You have been described as a foodie who loves photography, travel and writing. How do you manage to find time for all of this?

I have merged all the four points you mention into my work with Goonj. Travelling across urban and rural India, with its wide variety of flavours, there is never a dull food day. I make it a point to enjoy local delicacies in every place that I visit for work. This is a ritual for me.

As for photography, the landscape of my beautiful country presents ample opportunities. Writing is what I struggle most with, particularly given the time crunch. But I try and make up for this with poetry (like the collection I am penning as part of the ‘Covidi’ collection). I guess the trick for me is to not see my life, work and hobbies as different facets — they are all part of my journey.

The unequal allocation of resources, opportunities and policy-level attention to cities has resulted in rural India lagging behind, even in the bare basics of life and this needs to be corrected, says Mr Gupta
The unequal allocation of resources, opportunities and policy-level attention to cities has resulted in rural India lagging behind, even in the bare basics of life, and this needs to be corrected, says Mr Gupta