For the last 15 years, Goonj is clothing weaker sections of society in distant villages and disaster-affected regions

Among the three basic needs of roti, kapda and makaan, the first and the last attract more attention, as most people believe that clothing needs will be met by people themselves. Not so for Anshu Gupta, the winner of Changemaker’s Innovation and other awards, though, who says emphatically, “Clothes are essential not only for protection from weather extremes but also for protecting the dignity of most vulnerable and poor people.”

To meet this objective of providing clothes to those who need them the most at a very low cost, Anshu and his wife Meenakshi started a voluntary organisation Goonj. In the course of the last 15 years or so, the organisation has moved millions of pieces of old clothes (after cleaning and making the necessary repairs) from cities to the hamlets of the poorest distant villages as well as to areas affected by various disasters. This includes several flood-affected villages in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh as well as villages which suffered heavy damage due to earthquakes and cyclones in other parts of the country.

One way this objective has been promoted is by starting ‘clothes for work’ projects with the cooperation of various partner organisations. In addition, these projects also enable Goonj to initiate new development work with only old clothes as a resource-base.

The first step of the programme is to clean, repair and classify clothes which Goonj offices and volunteers collect from donors in various cities. Next, following the advice of various partner organisations in rural areas, trucks containing bags of these cleaned and classified clothes leave for villages or the collection point nearest to these villages.

In keeping with the needs and priorities of various villagers, partner organisations motivate villagers to contribute labour for the creation of development work like wells and tanks. During the last two years alone, nearly 600 development works (mostly in related to water and sanitation) have been taken up. The villagers are paid not in cash but in the form of clothes sent by Goonj. In emergency situations, clothes are distributed without such development work, but the more common practice is to implement ‘clothes for work’ projects.

In Gudha village of Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district, the clothes for work project resulted in the creation of a village road. Dwarka Prasad, a village elder who supervised the distribution of clothes says, “The village got a badly-needed road and in the process, some of the poorest families got clothes, including woollens.”

Several of these families here appeared to be satisfied with the project. However, one woman complained that the footwear was not useful as many chappals had high heels. It is, however, true that clothes or footwear used in cities can sometimes be incompatible with the needs of villagers, despite the precautions taken by the processing team to avoid sending incompatible products.

In Gudha and nearby villages the success achieved was also due to easy relationship of the partner organisation Vidya Dham Samiti with local villagers. A volunteer who has worked with Goonj says, “If the partners are not so committed, then the results at the ground level may not be good and the material may not be distributed so well and so quickly.”