Anshu Gupta's journey began in 1992 after a 6-year-old girl in New Delhi told him that she hugged dead bodies through the night to keep her warm.
The girl's father, Habib, and her blind mother, Amina Begum, were municipal workers, in charge of disposing of unclaimed corpses. Habib would receive 20 rupees (about 38 cents) for every corpse he picked up and cremated.
The plight of that family kept playing in the mind of Mr. Gupta, a communications and public relations professional. In 1998, he decided to give up his business career to do something to address a basic need of the poor in India clothing.
That's when Gupta and his wife, Meenakshi, who had worked for the British Broadcasting Corp., founded GOONJ, which means "echo."
The Guptas began by donating 67 pieces of spare clothing from their own wardrobes and, until 2003, ran GOONJ from their own home in New Delhi.
"We know that food, shelter, and clothing are basic human needs. But nobody, even within aid organizations, talks about clothing unless a disaster strikes and there are collection drives," Gupta says. "But if we can call an earthquake or a flood that claims many lives a disaster, then why don't we think of winter as one, too?
"We don't even have figures [to estimate the number of] people who die or suffer in winter due to lack of clothing," he adds.
Gupta had a real-life measure of the need near at hand. In winter, Habib used to pick up 10 to 12 corpses within a 2-mile radius in a day. In summer, the figure would drop to a third of that.
Today GOONJ is run almost entirely by volunteers across India who collect, sort, and distribute old clothes that people have given away. However, two aspects both part of Gupta's vision when he started GOONJ make this project different.
The first is that nothing is given away free of charge; Gupta's motto is "clothing for dignity," and he has also put in place a Cloth for Work program across the rural areas where GOONJ has a presence.
The second is that nothing goes to waste. If a piece of cloth cannot be used as clothing, it is processed and converted into something that can be sold, such as a bag, quilt, or yoga mat. As of now, 2.2 million pounds of material are processed annually by GOONJ.
The first point counters the common criticism that charity makes the recipient dependent, since Gupta's model uses clothing as payment for work carried out by people in villages. This, in turn, enhances their dignity. So, thanks to GOONJ, villagers are digging wells, laying roads, and repairing school buildings in exchange for clothing, instead of cash.
Gupta holds dear the Cloth for Work concept.
"We have been able to prove that with secondhand material, we can create infrastructure. I see it as the genesis of a parallel economy, one that is not cash-based but trash-based."
Ashutosh Kumar is an engineer-turned-social entrepreneur. His project identifies young people with a passion for development work and introduces them to successful people in the field. He has been associated with GOONJ for more than five years now and says of Gupta, "He takes the idea of dignity very seriously he gives local communities the opportunity to earn rather than receive something as charity."
Gupta's second guiding principle brings up another project that is really important to him: providing sanitary pads made out of waste cloth to very poor women, who otherwise have no access to personal hygiene products.
"The poor use anything that can absorb grass, sand, jute, and even plastic. I have seen a woman die because she contracted an infection from a rusted button on an old blouse she was using as a sanitary pad," Gupta says.
He describes the program as "not just a piece of cloth," because it is something "so critical to the life, health, and dignity of a woman."
Madhukar Shukla, who teaches a course on social entrepreneurship at the Xavier Labour Research Institute in Jamshedpur, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, uses GOONJ as a case study. …