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INDIA: Mobilised by Old Clothes, Poor Folk Stand Up, Take Action

Neeta Lal

NEW DELHI, Jan 29 2010 (IPS) - Salidhana village, a mere blip on the vast and arid landscape of India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh, was devoid of life’s most basic necessity – water. Until last year, there was no well in this hamlet of about a hundred families. Women would trudge hours daily to fetch water from distant areas, often losing their balance on the hilly village’s treacherous slopes.

However, one day last August, Salidhana’s residents woke up to the cheerful horns of trucks and lorries overflowing with dry rations and clothes. Volunteers from a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) – Goonj – spilled out of the vehicles to announce their ‘Clothes for Work’ initiative. “You dig a well in the village,” said the volunteers, “and we’ll gift you a year’s supply of free clothes.”

The response to the offer was tentative at first, with only seven people showing up for work. Soon, however, enthusiasm spread like wildfire and the entire village was digging the well with gusto. Within a month, the new well was inaugurated by the proud villagers.

“Now, not only do we have enough drinking water, there’s enough for irrigation, too, which has increased our crop yield threefold,” says Madho Ram, 32, a farmer, in a phone interview with IPS. “We also used the well’s construction debris to build a boundary around the fields, which has checked soil erosion.”

Goonj – or ‘echo’ in Hindi – has found a resonance among scores of India’s underprivileged by encouraging them to render voluntary labour in return for clothes. Its multifarious schemes have ushered in far-reaching developmental changes across swathes of rural and urban India.

In Moregaon, Assam, in northeastern India, 120 villagers laboured a full day last year to repair an approach road, and received clothes in lieu of wages. Quarry workers in Kundrathur in Tamil Nadu, southern India, unclogged drains in their settlement in exchange for clothes. The overflowing drains due to rains had led to unsanitary conditions in the district. In another district, Kuthambakkam, a water body was cleared of weeds.

In Vidharbha, Maharashtra, in western India, villagers were motivated to construct fences around their school and temple. In Sunderbans, West Bengal, clothes were distributed to those who cleaned and spruced up the village environs.

What started as an endeavor to clothe the needy with a basketful of 67 clothes collected from urban folk in 1998 is now a pan-India organisation, which functions in 21 states through a network of 150 grassroots organisations. “We channel 50,000 kilos of clothes and other household materials from urban areas to the remote villages of the country every month,” says Goonj’s founder Anshu Gupta, 40.

Prakash Michael of NGO Spandan in Madhya Pradesh, which partnered with Goonj on the Salidhana project, says “the idea is to make clothing a mobilising factor for people to improve their communities and empower themselves.”

In Salidhana, for instance, while earlier the area was totally rain-dependent, the villagers have now learned to store the well’s water for irrigation, which is then channeled into the agricultural fields. “This has dramatically brought down the farmers’ stress levels,” he adds.

Gupta stresses that such methods are sustainable and their template replicable countrywide because people are expected to take total ownership of the projects. Once the all-pervasive import of the projects sinks in, in terms of the benefits which accrue to the community, sustainability becomes easy, he adds.

This is especially vital for a country like India with its whopping 1.2 billion people. The government is stretched out too thin in terms of its social welfare measures. Furthermore, social development projects are imperiled by rampart corruption, an ineffective public distribution system and iniquitous resource allocation by the state governments.

Goonj’s initial undertaking and succeeding innovations, a number of which are in partnership with other NGOs, have shown that people, when empowered, can become agents of their own, or even others’, development.

The ‘School to School’ or S2S programme entails city children sending their old but still usable water bottles, satchels, stationery and books to underprivileged school children.

In a telephone interview with IPS, Rajeev Kumar, 12, a beneficiary of the S2S programme in Shakurbasti, New Delhi, says that after his father’s death due to alcoholism last year, his widowed mother could no longer finance his school needs. As a result, Kumar had to give up his studies.

The boy started loitering around and fell into bad company. When the S2S scheme came into the picture, it benefited many kids like Kumar. “I’m happy that I could rejoin school as I want to become an engineer and take care of my mother in her old age,” says Kumar.

Another of Goonj’s initiatives, “Not just a piece of cloth,” highlights the ignored need of sanitary napkins as a major health issue for marginalised women. Under this programme, unused cotton cloths are converted into clean cloth napkins, to be used by women during their menstrual periods.

Anjali Aggarwal, a volunteer, says better living conditions are inextricable from women’s health. “Women commonly use all kinds of rags as sanitary napkins in India,” says Aggarwal. “Menses, pretty much like sex, are a taboo subject. But there is a strong relationship between malpractices during menstruation and the prevalence of reproductive tract infections.”

The situation was so pathetic that in the Laporia village in Rajasthan state, “a majority of the women had their uteruses removed by quacks because of infections,” she recounts. “Not just a piece of cloth goes a long way in contributing to the betterment of people’s health.”

As it is, India’s per capita spending on health is an abysmal 4.9 percent of its gross domestic product, based on 2008 data from the World Health Organization. This is in contrast with the United States’ 15.3 percent, Switzerland’s 11.3 percent or France’s 11.1 percent. On top of this, women’s health has always taken a backseat in terms of governmental priorities.

Another initiative, called ‘Soojni’, is targeted at empowering rural women. Here, cloth leftovers are sewn together as patchwork quilts, bedcovers and mattresses called ‘soojni’ to be distributed among the poor. The women volunteers, who are usually able to make up to two such items a day, are paid 35 rupees (about 75 U.S. cents) per soojni.

“The best part about the scheme,” 36-year-old Pratibha Devi, a villager in Khandwa, tells IPS by phone, “is that I can do this work while juggling housework and managing the kids. I’ve already saved about 3,000 rupees (60 dollars) through this project. I think I’ll buy a second-hand TV with it!”

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