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'Cloth can be powerful development resource for India's poor'

Posted on Nov 07, 07:13PM | IANS

Cloth can be a powerful development resource for India's last-mile communities, says Anshu Gupta of the NGO Goonj that annually collects, processes and transports 1,000 tonnes of material to ultra-poor communities in 21 states.

"Goonj had demonstrated that cloth can be a powerful development resource for India's last-mile communities. We collect, sort, repurpose and redistribute the excess and under-used resources of urban households to the rural and urban poor, where material poverty is the deepest," Gupta told IANS.

On Tuesday, Anshu Gupta was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation, a sister organisation of the World Economic Forum, and the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation.

"Clothing is ignored as a subject though it is a part of the roti, kapda, makan (food, clothes, shelter) concept and there is a chance that other people will understand and replicate what we in Goonj are doing," Gupta, who started the NGO 13 years ago, said soon after receiving the award from Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.

Village and slum communities, in exchange for cloth and material, conduct self-organised local development and infrastructure building programs, leading to more than 500 infrastructure projects every year - such as the setting up of schools, concrete roads, bridges, wells, irrigation canals and toilets across 1,500 villages.

This "cloth for work" approach "spurs behavioural change on both the demand and supply sides: marginal communities begin to believe in their own capacity for catalysing change and urban India learns to contribute (rather than dispense) material, based on what the poor need", Gupta pointed out.

With 150 permanent employees and offices in nine cities, Goonj operates through a network of 250 grassroots NGOs, 200 engaged business houses, 200 schools and 500-plus volunteers.

"Our large-scale, last-mile networks have made Goonj, the most efficient channel for large-scale disaster rehabilitation in the country. Goonj's sanitary napkins programme, created by remnants of waste cloth, has opened up a new field of development intervention in female reproductive health, with more than two million sanitary napkins distributed to first-time rural women users," Gupta pointed out.

Apart from Gupta, Vanita Vishwanath of Udyogini that is reviving stagnant rural value chains in agriculture and natural resources by putting a new generation of tribal women entrepreneurs and female business development managers in charge and the duo of Sameer Sawarkar and Rajeev Kumar, who have developed ReMeDi, a rural telemedicine and telediagnostic solution that has brought down to cost of consultations to Rs.50, were also in contention for the award.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Dikshit said: "Social entrepreneurship as a concept has grown over the years from just small entities. Now we have reached a stage where entrepreneurs who are doing great work in the society, need to be recognised for their efforts, but there are very few avenues for this. We need more social entrepreneurs to come forward and help those still in the growing stage and thus help the community at large."

"India continues to be one of our strongest countries in putting forth a large number of high quality social enterprises," said Hilde Schwab, co-founder and chairperson, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

"This is also the first year in which all Social Entrepreneur of the Year finalists have an impact or activities concentrated in remote regions where the need for healthcare, skills development and infrastructure remains acute," she added.

More than 180 applicants entered the eighth annual Social Entrepreneur of the Year selection process for India, and the three finalists emerged after several stages of rigorous assessment.

The winner of this year's India award enters the Schwab Foundation's global community of 230 social innovators.