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A talk by – ANSHU GUPTA

Speech by Anshu Gupta, Ashoka Fellow
Founder- Director, GOONJ, New Delhi

    Good morning dear friends,

    Many years ago when I was into active journalism, I did a story on Habib, in Delhi. His designation was DILLI POLICE KA LAAASH DHONE WALA”, meaning picker of abandoned dead bodies for the Delhi Police, his work: taking these bodies from the roads to the electric crematorium. While spending time with him, two statements from him and his little daughter shook me completely. One when he said- “In winters my business goes up” which means more deaths on the roads. And second came from his 4 and a half years old daughter- who very innocently told me-“ When I feel cold at night I just tightly hug the dead body on that rickshaw and sleep with it.”

    Let me relate to you another real life story connected with a woman’s most ignored and hushed up basic need. It’s about those five days when every woman in the world needs a sanitary napkin. A poor woman from a place called Shikohabad in India, used a piece of cloth from her blouse, as a sanitary napkin, but unfortunately this piece of blouse had a metal hook inside and the lady died of tetanus. In many parts of the world, especially in India, women from the villages and lower income group end up using the most dirty and useless cloth, since they can’t afford anything better and are not aware of the health risks involved. As a result we come across hundreds of such incidents.

    I hope these two incidents highlight the importance of clothing as a basic need like food and shelter. At GOONJ, our mission is to make clothing a matter of concern, in a world where thousands of unaccounted deaths due to cold can be prevented just by paying attention to this aspect.

    Interesting and shocking as they are, on the first look, the connection of these two incidents with the Tsunami may not be evident. But please hear me out and you will see how collaborations and partnerships can help people in the most amazing manner.

    I am sure you remember pictures in the national and international media after the Tsunmai, showing piles of clothes on the roadsides in Tamil Nadu. I have been involved with working on 100 trucks of this rejected cloth, meaning about 2 million units of clothing which was lying waste in the go downs of the Tamil Nadu government.

    It was not distributed due to a major mismatch between the donation and the cultural, religious and geographical context of the people it was meant for. The main reason for rejection was also the way the cloth was given without any dignity. The enormous media coverage led to the misconception that people were not accepting old material. Goonj approached the Tamil Nadu government and suggested that we could re-route this important unutilized resource to the needy people in Tamil Nadu and the rest of the country.

    Today after 5 months of highly quality conscious sorting and packing on the basis of matching the needs, the same cloth has gone out not only to the people of Tamil Nadu but a big consignment of sorted out woolens is on its way to earthquake hit areas in Kashmir & Pakistan through the Indian army and the Pakistan High Commission. A big chunk of this cloth, which is not fit for wearing, will be turned into cloth sanitary napkins and school bags, to be given to people across India.

    To turn these two million units of clothing into a resource, we had no funds or manpower. But this first of its kind project was made possible due to multiple agencies working together sharing the work and benefits.

    To begin with, starting our work at the government go-down and successful negotiations with the government for basics like tea and water solved the problem of space and some running expenses. Ladies from self-help groups in nearby villages joined the effort on payment and volunteers without payment. For distribution, instead of spending time and resources on establishing a network, we are involving District Collectorates and local NGO’s in the tsunami affected regions. The Tamil Nadu government is transporting the material in some areas while in others the local NGO’s are sharing the cost. For transporting material to the earthquake hit in Kashmir, Safexpress, a well-known transport company brought it till Delhi free of cost and from Delhi the trucks of Indian army are picking it up. Similarly for other parts of the country hit by disasters like floods or the cold wave, the local distribution partners in the affected states are sharing the costs.

    The end result of all this team work is that by spending just one rupee on every cloth (less than 2 cents), including the manpower, sorting, packing and distribution cost, this so called rejected cloth named as Tsunami wastage is benefiting many people sitting thousands of miles away from the tsunami areas even across the border.

    Tsunami to a large extent was a story of collaborations for us. We invested our energies in motivating people and organizations to generate specific material and support. By spending a small sum of Rs. 3,00,000 in the first three months we generated material worth over Rs. 15 million.

    CAF India gave us this Rs. 3,00,000. A number of leading corporate houses collected material on our specific guidelines. Our appeals for material were specific to the point that when we asked for 2 kgs of rice and a few grams of tea leaf from every child in Delhi schools, we collected truck loads of rice and tea leaf. Thus no single individual was burdened and specific needs of the affected people were met, just by collaboration and collective work. The same approach was taken for the school material where thousands of children made small contribution which resulted in huge quantities of school supplies.

    The biggest challenge for us was to reach the affected communities since we had never worked in the coastal belt of Tamil Nadu & Andhra Pradesh. We wrote to all the Ashoka fellows working in that area and through other reliable partners approached the local NGOs. In just a couple of days we were ready with a detailed distribution plan. The coastal & SHG networks of fellows in Tamilnadu and the network of a reliable NGO in Andhra Pradesh were identified. Our first step was to get information about the extent of damage and needs of the people through this network.

    Once that was done, material collected by GOONJ from various cities of India was the first to reach some of the coastal village communities with the help of this big group of local agencies. Free transportation and delivery till all the affected areas was made possible by Safexpress free of cost.

    India that way is a very big story of successful collaborations. District government with agencies, industries with government, Alumni organisations with education departments and many more.

    BUT the sheer scale of funds and agencies involved in Tsunami relief and rehabilitation did lead to its own share of negative stories on collaboration. The biggest problem was a large number of in-experienced agencies, which because of their relationships and image, collected huge funds, but had no experience of working in disasters. Some of them are doing excellent work in their own fields but perhaps collaborating with an organization experienced in dealing with disasters would have saved the efforts on reinventing the wheel. Some of the money and resources given to relief agencies with a lot of trust, hopes and good intentions was badly spent just due to lack of coordination. Its important for us to understand that individually each of us can do only so much and we shouldn’t shy away from partnering with others with similar intentions.

    What the world saw and talked about after the Tsunami was the infighting among NGOs for adopting some communities and areas while other areas got no aid at all (Personally I hate the word ‘adoption’ as I am sure do the lakhs of people in the disaster effected areas, whom we claim we are adopting). In all this infighting, mismanagement and adverse publicity, the government also got a chance to shirk its responsibility and started dictating terms to the NGOs. Mind you, it’s not the sole responsibility of development agencies to provide facilities like housing, road, electricity and water. But instead of pressurizing the government to give the people their rightful services and ensuring appropriate use of money, many agencies ended up wondering how to spend the money they had collected.

    There have been stories about groups distributing televisions in the name of trauma counseling and places where people had more temporary shelters than the total population of the village!!!

    At GOONJ.. we know what we can and cannot do. We think we are good at motivating people and agencies in the cities but our strength is the network of partner organizations and individuals working at the grass root level who know the social, cultural and geographical context of their area. They play the role of the last and the most critical leg of the distribution chain. They also act as our eyes and ears at the time of disasters.
    Tsunami taught all of us a lot about do’s and don’t of disasters. The Ashoka network in India implemented its learning by forming ANDIPAR (Ashoka network for disaster preparedness and response). Under ANDIPAR, Fellows in different parts of the country are now sharing and benefiting from each other’s experience and knowledge of disasters in their areas. ANDIPAR’s effectiveness was successfully put into action in the Kashmir earthquake when GOONJ.. initiated its relief work and the ANDIPAR network actively supported its efforts.
    On 26th December, we observe the first anniversary of Tsunami, one year down the line none of the survivors have been able to move to a permanent house. After the Tsunami NGO’s had funds to the tune of 4000 crores, with Rs. 3000 crores channeled to Nagapattinam alone. 650 NGOs worked in the 13 coastal districts of Tsunami affected states, for families of 8000 dead people with 1.3 lakh houses partially or fully damaged. I personally find it a matter of shame for the government and everyone in the development sector that even now we are watching people of Tamil Nadu suffering miserably in the recent rains and floods as the dream of a permanent shelter is just that – a dream.
    I request my learned colleagues gathered here to deliberate and envision that if the wastage generated from Tsunami could be turned into a unique case of massive resource generation, by an organization which has no regular source of funding simply by collaborating and networking. What wonders are possible with coordinated and focused relief and rehabilitation work in the disaster zones of the world?

    My sincere thanks to all of you for such a patient listening.. Thanks APPC and Priya for inviting me to speak.

APPC Conference – Phuket November 28-30, 2005″

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