Relinquishing the perks and comfort of the corporate world and plunging into a field hitherto explored, bringing relief to thousands of lives through simple, practical methods, inspiring and motivating people to contribute to society is the hallmark of Anshu Gupta’s life.
Anshu Gupta is the Founder Director of Goonj.
Anshu: It is really strange when people call me a social entrepreneur or a leading social entrepreneur, I think it is something that bothers me. When there is pressure to do something, there are two ways I can act—first, by cribbing, which all of us do and, second, is when I am bothered and want to do something. How will I do it? What will I do? I don’t know. To be honest, when we started from home, we started with 67 units of clothing. There was hardly anything we knew. We didn’t even know that there is a sector like this. We didn’t know that you have to register an organization. In 1998, I left the job and Meenakshi, my wife, joined BBC. Our first important decision was that I would not look for another job. The second decision was that she would earn and I would spend for few years. In 1998, Goonj was informally started, and we got it registered in 1999.
To be honest, when we started from home, we started with 67 units of clothing. There was hardly anything we knew.
Anshu: Yes, I get angry about some issues; otherwise, I am a nice person to talk to. I think when something is bothering me, I certainly need to be angry. Often, instead, we accept the status quo and don’t get angry. And at the end of the day, the dirt on the road has stopped bothering us, the choked naalis (drains) do not bother us. Next to the naali is a golgappa wala standing, and we go and eat golgappas unaffected by our surroundings.
I think the biggest problem is that a whole lot of us have accepted the status quo. We can crib, we can criticize but we are a part of that system. I mean if you see and talk about the corruption, it’s not that we are the victim of corruption we are also guilty of corruption.
If I am not demanding anything, if I am not asking for anything and there is no confrontation with the system. I mean the important part is that am I really realizing it? Do I even know what rights I have or who I should ask? So how do you really see a change?
Anshu: Why do you think that movement always has to be against something? Movement can always be for something, right? I always tell people–this country, rather, this world does not need thinkers any more. Enough of them. It needs doers. It needs action, it needs initiative. First, do something and then demand.
Anshu: There are two sets of people—one population that does not bother, that does not care at all, a very self-centred population. Every nation has that. The other population is certainly bothered and we are very hopeful with that chunk of people. However, for them too, the right kind of information is not available. And I think the younger generation needs to go beyond that and they need to question.
When I attend conferences and seminars or, sometimes, when I am on a jury, I hear that 100,000 lives have changed. If that were so, the change needs to be visible. We also need to be realistic. If we tell ourselves, I want to see those 100 faces whose lives have been totally changed because of us, the honest answer is very stark. People like us are privileged to wear good clothes, roam around in the cars and speak in English. That’s a big divide in any case. Somewhere, we need to be honest at least for an hour and acknowledge that there is something wrong. We have the intention and there is no dearth of resources; yet, even after that, if things are not changing there is something wrong in the way we are operating, the way we are thinking, the way we see problems, the way we find solutions. I think the new generation, the young generation has an opportunity to look through the lens of the people for whom they want to work for, instead of using their own distorted lens.
We have the intention and there is no dearth of resources; yet, even after that, if things are not changing there is something wrong in the way we are operating, the way we are thinking, the way we see problems, the way we find solutions.
Anshu: I think the sector needs to plan much better; it needs to speak for itself much more. I often tell people that, in many cases, the development sector exists because of the non-doing of the government and wrong-doing of business. That’s the truth, that’s the very bitter truth in a large part of the world. The sector is never respected for what it does. This sector today has the best possible professionals with a big heart—people who are ready not to earn the way other people are earning; people ready to go to places they will not get a small room to stay despite having the money to pay for a room; people ready to go into a disaster and risk their lives despite the fact that they are not trained like the Indian army or the Indian air force. This sector is full of those passionate, ‘useless’, as I say ‘mad’ people. They are never respected in that way. Today, NGOs are vilified; people say NGOs are corrupt. And I say openly to people to put together all the frauds of NGOs and it will not be equal to the fraud committed by some big companies. The sector, however, does not defend itself; it does not talk much about it. Unfortunately, in this sector, we all are worried about our own institution, our own idea; we are not coming together as a sector.
Today, NGOs are vilified; people say NGOs are corrupt. And I say openly to people to put together all the frauds of NGOs and it will not be equal to the fraud committed by some big companies. The sector, however, does not defend itself; it does not talk much about it.
This sector, like any other sector, has good and bad people. And to be honest, more good people, because not everyone will go to a village and work in the dirt unless they are passionate about it. It should not be the last option for the younger generation or the last option for people who now do not have any option in the corporate world. Don’t come here and say I’m taking sabbatical—say upfront I’ve earned enough and I’m sick and tired and that’s the reason I want to serve the people. That’s a very beautiful thought, at any age or stage of your life. Let go of any arrogance, whatever you had, and come work in this sector because this is a new sector, a new way of working.
Don’t come here and say I’m taking sabbatical—say upfront I’ve earned enough and I’m sick and tired and that’s the reason I want to serve the people. That’s a very beautiful thought, at any age or stage of your life.
Anshu: The most important for me is that you see the problem through the eyes of people. You do not decide for them at all. You are coming here to solve certain problems. Therefore, you first need to identify the problems, which may be totally different from what you had imagined. Why do you think all the problems can be solved by one solution, one approach? That’s why you need to let go of your arrogance—the arrogance of being in corporate, academia or an international organization. Come with a willingness to learn from the people. Stop thinking of yourself as a donor and someone else as the beneficiary.
Come with a willingness to learn from the people. Stop thinking of yourself as a donor and someone else as the beneficiary.
More dedicated people are needed. I always give two examples to people why people like us must do whatever we can. The first is the compulsion and the second is duty. I ask people, during my lectures, what is the safest place in their lives? Everyone says ‘home’. Next, I ask, how many of you can leave your 10- or 12-year-old daughter or sibling alone at home? And there is pin drop silence. That’s a compulsion that we cannot leave them and feel safe. If my daughter is not safe, there is something fundamentally wrong in the society, in the ecosystem. It needs to hit us somewhere. We need to get angry about this. We need to take action to change this.
The second most important part is duty. Every single person in this country, from the richest to whoever has ever gone to a government school, government college, an IIT, IIM, any institute…every single person who wears good clothes, roams around in a car, can speak in English, can afford a one-bedroom house or has availed of a subsidy in this country owes something back to society. Whether I take this as a debt or I take it as my right is 100 per cent up to me. This realization, however, is extremely important to get in touch with before I sleep every day. The subsidy I avail of may be my right…that subsidy, however, is also the right of millions of other people. Therefore, if I have all the rights to a swimming pool in an IIT, the children, studying in a primary school in some remote part of the country, have a right to a teacher. And who will ensure that if the government machinery has failed? Someone will have to do it; someone will have to correct this.
Anshu: I think, it’s been a beautiful journey. To be honest, one thing I always acknowledge about this entire journey of almost two decades is that we have got the best people within this sector; and outside the sector, we have so many friends, even in the corporate world, who are not a part of the greed cycle…they are very beautiful human beings. The way the team has grown is because we struggled and there was no model for us to learn from. We did not even know how to sort a piece of cloth to use, we learnt it on the go with the suggestions of whosoever was part of the team. Remembering that, I feel very happy.
I always tell people that humaare haath mein toh Aladdin ka chirag lag gaya hai. How you make use of it, is in your hand now to enjoy and to feel happy about it
Anshu: I don’t see it as much of a struggle because it was a part of life, because it happened. I think the biggest challenge used to be the mind-set of the people; this is still the problem. I remember, I gave a lecture in a software company in Bangalore, and one member of the audience, who I am sure, had been educated in a prestigious institute and was making plans and projections for the company, asked me, “Sir, tell me, are these people who work for you paid in clothes? Or are they paid in money?” I didn’t answer for a moment. I then asked him, “Are you paid in software or in money?” And he didn’t have an answer. Obviously.
And then there is this is the entire thoughtlessness of people. We get many thousands of shoes…not pairs, but just one of the pair…They don’t seem to consider that someone has to wear two shoes…a pair of shoes. I think this callousness has to change. Why would you give us something that you are ashamed to give even to your kachrawala because he will open it up in front of your house. I mean who gives you a right to give us your used sanitary pad or a blood-soaked undergarment? Unfortunately, there is no dearth of such people. We deal with 3000 tonnes of material; and a sizable chunk of such useless material given by such people is what we deal with on a regular basis. I think that mind-set has to change.
Anshu: We deal with many young people. Many now come and talk about these things. I think it’s one of the most beautiful sectors we have because it’s not that we are dying of hunger, we do earn whatever we want. We have no desire to change our car every year or make three houses; our wants are limited and we are able to fulfil them. It’s heartening to have so many like-minded people around. At the end of the day, you see some little thing happening somewhere and you know this is something which I think the younger generation also needs to understand. I sit with my larger team and tell them that they are really blessed, we are all blessed because like a whole lot of other people, we also get a salary, we also have a 9 to 5 job; everything that people in other sectors are getting, we are also getting…less or more is a different issue but we are also getting it. Our children are also going to schools; we can also watch movies once in two or three months.
I sit with my larger team and tell them that they are really blessed, we are all blessed because like a whole lot of other people, we also get salary, we also have a 9 to 5 job; everything that people in other sectors are getting, we are also getting…less or more is a different issue but we are also getting it.
When you work in a soft drink company, you are providing soft drink to someone who can afford water in addition to that. If you talk about my team…those 100s of women who work here…imagine their hard work, their efforts are supporting someone back in the village from where they have come. How blessed we are that we have everything that all the other people have in this world. In addition to our work, our thought process, our deeds, whatever we are doing is bringing change, albeit small, in someone’s life. Working in this sector for the last two decades, we hope and know that although we may not be able to change the whole world, we touch the lives of a number of people and that’s not little.