‘Doing good is a collective responsibility’

Date : Feb 13 , 2019 | Q&A

Anshu Gupta has a rather disturbing metaphor to describe the general apathy towards ‘other’ India, the India that is in distress and forgotten by the story of development. “It’s like witnessing an accident on a highway: you are speeding in the opposite direction when you see the accident, you feel shocked, but you keep driving until you reach a place where you can sip a cup of tea, wash your face and then move on. The accident—and the emotion you felt when you first saw it—is quickly forgotten, and you go your way.”

Unlike most of us, Anshu couldn’t look away when, as a young journalist, he encountered the truth about Delhi’s winter deaths: It’s not the cold that kills people, it’s the lack of clothing. That’s what set him on a mission that has since earned him the sobriquet of India’s Clothing Man. In 1998, he quit his corporate job and set up Goonj, with wife Meenakshi as co-founder.

Over the years, Goonj has successfully built a model that uses discarded material as currency to address rural and urban issues such as, water, environment, livelihoods, education, health, disaster relief and rehabilitation. As Goonj celebrates its 20th anniversary, Anshu, who was conferred the Magsaysay Award in 2015, talks about his journey so far, the leadership challenges he faces, and why social justice is not just the responsibility of development sector professionals. Edited excerpts from the interview.

When you look back at the last 20 years, what gives you the most satisfaction?

Sometimes one thinks that one is hopeful because one is hopeful – there’s no logic to it. And then, one sees the good work done in the last 20 years, not only by Goonj but by so many other organisations, and one feels there is indeed reason to be hopeful.

Looking back, we can’t claim to have changed hundreds of thousands of lives. The fact remains that we can only bring some change, make a small dent in people’s lives and that too with their support. At Goonj we have just done that, and we have been fortunate enough to be able to do that across a geographical spread through various initiatives. Making sure that people understand their own power instead of depending on people like us, is a good start. It’s a good reason to feel happy about.

Is Indian society in general, leaving the social sector aside, doing enough to address questions of social inequity and injustice?

There’s something wrong for sure. We need to think why people don’t care enough. It’s like witnessing an accident on a highway: you are speeding in the opposite direction when you see the accident, you feel shocked, but you keep driving until you reach a place where you can sip a cup of tea, wash your face and then move on. The accident—and the emotion you felt when you first saw it—is quickly forgotten, and you go your way.

Most of us feel that we are immune to these things, that they will happen only to someone else. This, unfortunately, is the new normal.

I’m surprised that a lot of people expect the social sector alone to do all the good work. Doing good is a collective responsibility. People like us, who wear good clothes and have a good education, think it’s our right to have these privileges. We forget that basic education is the right of every kid in this country, but half of them don’t even make it past Class 10. We must realise that we are grossly privileged. It’s important therefore to pay back.

If the county progresses, it’s not just one section of the society that will benefit — we will all benefit.

How can people begin engaging with social problems?

By getting into action. If all of us start doing that, in whatever domain we want, in whatever is bothering us–be it polythene bags, paan marks on public property, the poor state of our zebra crossings, whatever it is—that’s a good beginning. Start alone, start with family or friends, just start. If 10 people listen to you, five will oppose; but look at the positive side. I believe that logic is largely an excuse for not doing something. So, be a doer. India doesn’t need any more thinkers for some time; we need doers, we need action and initiative. There are thousands of small organisations that are doing good work, and if you don’t want to lead, you can always follow them.

How would you describe your journey as a founder and a leader?

When you get into action, you explore something new every day, not only about your team, your work and the potential of your work, but also about yourself. As you and your organisation grow, there is a growing expectation of you and the organisation, not just from the world but also from yourself.

‘Leader’ and ‘follower’ are words that indicate a certain relationship: without the follower, there would be no leader. For people like us—who are not spiritual gurus or political leaders, many of whom can afford to talk without delivering much—the only way to get people within and outside the organisation to follow us, is to practise what we preach.  It’s my responsibility to take care of the institution and be aware of any word-action gap in myself as a leader and as an individual.

As a founder, it’s not enough that I speak to the world; regular conversations with the team ensure that I am not cut off from the last person in the team. Wherever I go, I spend time with the larger local team, even if for 15 minutes. That’s something other colleagues also have to do. It’s important to keep the connect.

In the growth phase of an organisation, admin work consumes a lot of time. But I guess it’s a package deal – it’s not like all the good work will come to you and the unpleasant work will go to someone else. When it feels mundane and not worth your time, remember that this is part of your dream: you’ve built an institution and you want replication to happen; so, you have no option but to work on those nuts and bolts to build a ready model for people to take away.

You often speak about democratic leadership. How do you make it work at Goonj?

We practise a guided democracy, wherein people have a lot of freedom to think and act; there’s an outline whose contours can change over time, but people know the non-negotiables. Freedom is as important as responsibility and delivery.

Over the last 20 years we have assured our team members that they can grow to their potential as we won’t bring in someone senior from outside the organisation. That gives them space and opportunity to grow within the organisation. It also builds a lot of trust.

One of the reasons for our growth is the quality of our leadership in different states. We seek to create a strong sense of ownership in our team members about the work they do. People in the communities don’t always recognise me, but they relate very well with the head of their local Goonj chapter. This sense of ownership is built in small ways, such as insisting that important emails go out from the colleague who’s managing the project, ensuring that local teams interact with local media, and so on.  That is a spirit we see being transferred from one generation of colleagues to the next as well. Since these things look very small, organisations often take them for granted–and that’s where gaps start happening.

We also move people across roles, so they see how they are interdependent and connected. Thus, a person in the product design and production team must recognise that their job is made possible by those who sort raw materials at our processing centre. If the field team didn’t work efficiently, why would we need a team to talk about money? Each member is a part of the same value chain and we can’t afford to have even a single link collapse.

We have a flat organisation, without designations. We are called Team Goonj. We see growth in terms of how our understanding and actions evolve. However, the larger world is used to seeing growth only in terms of changing designations. We do struggle sometimes when there are pressures from within and outside to introduce designations but, so far, we have manged the issue as a team.  When the need arises, we will see how to address it without changing our core philosophy.

What are the questions that you contemplate as a leader?

Maintaining the organisation’s value system is an ongoing issue. Building a value system is easier than maintaining it. For an organisation that often takes on the establishment, challenges the status quo, it’s not always an easy journey.

Maintaining trust in one’s team is vital. Organisations often create policies that are aimed at pre-empting one or two team members who may misuse a benefit, thus overlooking the goodness of a vast majority of team members. It is important to take care of the individuals in the organisation. Leaders and organisations tend to invest in machines, processes and systems, but in the end, it is the people who take the story home.

I constantly think about the language we use in the social sector to describe our relationships with the people we work with. To me, someone setting up a small organisation in a remote village of Kalahandi, with no resources other than a deep passion for change and a great understanding of the ground reality, is a real CEO and a dreamer.  I must respect them because they are a part of my larger dream. I’m not a donor and they are not a beneficiary. I am because they are.

Another issue of concern is the lack of understanding about societal issues and ground realities on the part of several CSR teams. This manifests in various ways, from the demand for unnecessary documentation, to insensitive display of branding, and the refusal to look beyond their immediate surroundings. While we do have CSR partners who understand our work and walk miles with us, there are also many organisations for whom concern for the country, social issues and development stops within 50 km of their offices, as though the villages of India did not even exist!

What next for Goonj and for Anshu Gupta?

There’s a lot to do still. I often say that development happens when one goes from zero to one, but when I look back at our two decades of work, I see that we have largely been working on moving people from minus to zero, meaning basic survival. So, there is a long way to go. One dream is to see how we can replicate the idea of turning urban discard into a currency for working on neglected issues of people in other countries and contexts.

Changing the language of the development sector is an important work in progress. We want to challenge demeaning words like ‘donor’ and ‘beneficiary ‘ and tell people that everyone is a stakeholder. We want to challenge the myth that we, the people in good clothes, know both the problem and the solution; we want to prove that people at the grassroots have much more to give.  We want to dispel the myths and the mistrust around the development sector.

I look forward to working with farmers, standing with hundreds of new initiatives, working with new entrepreneurs and people bitten by the social change bug.

Any regrets? Anything you wish you had done differently?

No, I have no regrets. It’s easy to look back after five years and say you could have done something differently, but if your intention was honest then that’s all that matters. You did what you thought was best at that time, you didn’t know any better then. It’s not possible for one organisation to do everything. Whatever we couldn’t do at Goonj, others can do. It might be an unfair world, but it is very generous at least in giving everyone enough opportunities to do something good, something meaningful.

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