This was my third trip to India but it was my first time working there with my partner Louise. Together we would spend a month with Anshu Gupta, founder of the social movement ‘Goonj’. After spending time with Anshu in Delhi and Rishikesh we flew south to Odisha. After a long drive through fertile landscapes flanked by mountain ranges and deep green valleys we arrived at a hill station called Daringbadi that would serve as our base for the next seven days.
Kond tribe villager in Odisha.
In the morning, a young man delivered a bucket of warm water to our room so we could wash, and then we headed into the jungle to meet a community of women and men from the Kond tribe. That day, they would be building a road that connects their village with that of their neighbors. We filmed and photographed the community members as they dug the path through the jungle. This activity represents the final stage of Goonj's unique approach to sustainable, community-led rural development work. The first part of that process is the collection of clothing and other items deemed surplus in urban areas of India. These materials are then lovingly recycled and repurposed by teams of ladies in processing centers around the country. 'Kits' of materials and other useful items are assembled by theme, such as a 'school' kit with uniforms, backpacks, and notebooks, or a 'wedding' kit filled with beautiful saris, or a 'livelihood' kit with items that might help someone start a bicycle repair service or barbershop. What is seen as valueless in the city holds great value for those in rural villages, and these kits serve as payment for each community member who works together on a project that improves the lives of their community as a whole.
Goonj material collection center in Rishikesh.
The jungle road being built by the local community crosses a river via a bamboo bridge that had also been designed and constructed by the villages as part of a previous collaboration with Goonj. That bridge alone was a life-changing and life-saving addition to the local infrastructure. Adults traveling to the neighboring village and children attending the school there had, for generations, been crossing the river with the aid of a rope, which during the months of the monsoon season had been a perilous and at times fatal path to take. We witnessed the enormous impact of the projects in all the locations we visited in Orissa. And we witnessed the incredible progress that can be made when communities are empowered to work together towards a common goal.
Goonj has nothing to do with the nature of each development project. Each village dictates their own needs and their own approach to achieving that goal. Goonj teams are simply there to support that process and deliver 'kits' that serve as payment for their labor. Part of the Goonj philosophy is that, if one village works together for the good of their community, then neighbouring villages will see what they have achieved and be inspired to do the same themselves. Goonj believes this unique approach to rural development, from recycling and repurposing to community empowerment and infrastructure implementation, could be adopted by nations and communities around the world.
Goonj is an organisation driven by their belief in local wisdom. They know that rural development is not about giving a helping hand to those traditionally perceived as 'poor,' but rather, sustainable solutions come from a unified and dignified collaboration between urban and rural communities.
Pearse Station Exhibition
When it finally came time to return to the airport in Bhubaneswar, the heavens opened up, and the monsoon rains pounded the roads. We drove along flooded highways at night, and at times, waves of water splashed across the car, reducing visibility to zero. I remember looking at the Goonj staff in our vehicle who were taking this time to rest and thinking, "This is just another day for a Goonj team member" knowing that in 22 states across India, Goonj teams are working together to execute thousands of these projects every year. The need for this kind of rural development transcends simply connecting one village to another. The issues these communities face are not always visible to a visitor like me, but they permeate in a way that continues the cycle of poverty until sustainable change is achieved. That is why Goonj is, and always will be, one of the organizations that Louise and I remain dedicated to.