North Stars ft. Anshu Gupta

In this world full of noise, Anshu’s voice stands out. 

Unapologetic, clear, decisive.  

I had the privilege of hearing him as a part of an audience of thousands, wholly shocked and unabashedly crying by the time he concluded. Anshu makes you feel responsible for both the problem and the solution. 

How does one attempt to summarize Anshu in a few words? How does one even begin? Fondly referred to as Anshu Bhaiyya by an entire generation of young people, it is difficult to articulate any one reason that makes him stand out as one of the tallest leaders in the Indian development sector today. 

So, I will begin from the beginning. The eldest of four children born to Kusum Ji and SD Gupta Ji, Anshu hails from a simple family with beautiful values. Guptaji was an honest Government officer, which led to multiple transfers across some of the toughest locations in the North of India. However, every time the family moved homes, the children learnt to immerse themselves in new schools, environments, neighbourhoods and cultures. Kusum Ji was a strong woman, meticulous in her management of a loving home within limited means.

The seeds of empathy and action were sowed in his life by strong role modelling from his parents and the life he led with them.  Frequent change of schools, adapting to new environments with each change, co-learning with children and co-existing with people of all economical and religious backgrounds; he had seen a life where inclusion was not an after-thought but a necessity.  

The first life-altering event in Anshu’s life occurred when he was barely 18.  A horrible road accident rendered him bedridden for a year and he was told he may never walk again.  Ready to be wheeled into surgery, Guptaji was asked to pay a bribe to ensure the operation succeeds.  He refused.  He was asked again.  And he refused again.  Anshu lives in constant pain due to the botched-up foot surgery by resentful caregivers.  In a strange way, this pain is a constant reminder of the values his honest father stood for. 

As I heard Anshu narrate this incident to me, his awe and reverence for the man his father was is impossible to ignore.  What a beautiful relationship it has to be, where a father chooses the right path trusting that his son will understand, and in turn, the son honours the memory of his father’s most difficult moment through the conduct of his life.  In spite of truckloads of relief material being transported every day, Goonj has a zero-bribe policy which Anshu credits to his father. “I didn’t pay a bribe for my foot, why will I pay a bribe for my truck? It’s okay to pay fines but not bribes.” 

Any event has the power to change our life if we are open to receiving the lessons it has to offer. Just like the accident in his early years, two other events played a big role in changing the course of Anshu’s life. The first was his travel to Uttarkashi in 1991 to help with relief work after a devastating earthquake.  And the second was when as a curious journalist, he followed a body collector in Delhi in the peak of winter.

Both events triggered questions for Anshu.  He had seen unclaimed stiff bodies of people who had died of cold.  But if cold had killed the homeless person, then cold should have killed him too.  What protected him was the clothing he was warm & secured in.  It was a moment of truth that laid the foundation of the future.  Seven years after his first experience in Uttarkashi, with a much deeper understanding and conscious deliberation, Anshu along with his wonderful wife Meenakshi, founded ‘Goonj’, an idea way ahead of its time.  

Meenakshi, Mini or Mini di as she is lovingly called, carries a calm but steely strength that is challenging to describe.  Anshu calls her the backbone of Goonj, of his own life and it is easy to see why. Three years into marriage, she walked the tough road with her partner.  Today, as she leads the strategy, communication, core operations of Goonj, she is also the force that keeps Anshu grounded in a world where he is constantly celebrated.  They say people join Goonj for Anshu but stay for Mini di.  And once you meet Mini, it is very easy to understand why.

‘Goonj’ has changed the way we view disasters and has made them human.  Anshu brought the stories in our line of sight till it was impossible to ignore.  The journalist and wordsmith in him are evident in the narrative Goonj brings to us.  It shook me to the core when I first heard him say, lack of cloth is a disaster, poverty is a disaster.  A seamless continuous one that we have learnt to be comfortable with.  Those of us who are not poor are comfortable knowing someone else is.  It’s a lesson I’m unable to forget.

Partnering with 400-500 NGOs in India, the entire operative model of Goonj is based on collaboration to reach the worst affected areas in the fastest possible time.  Anshu reiterates that no other industry or sector in India comes together like the voluntary sector to collaborate for common good.  Goonj, like many other NGOs, operates with the currency of trust.  That’s how they are able to respond to disasters so quickly. 

Anshu in conversation with women in Rupaspur, village in northeast India. (Pic. Courtesy: CSR Monitor/Manan Vatsyana/AFP/GettyImages)

I had the privilege of visiting the brilliant, perfectly managed processing centre  at Sarita Vihar, Delhi where tonnes of material received is split into useful parts to ensure zero waste.  Along with my colleague Vijayata, I saw buttons, staple pins, old audio cassettes, jeans being used to create beautiful useful products in a manner that would put most industrial processing centres to shame.  As we walked through this fantastic facility beaming faces of women and men proudly showing us their creations, we understood how internalised the concept of ‘dignity’ is within Goonj.  Eyes beaming, taking us through nuances of creating bags, bridal and anganwadi kits, sanitary pads, urging us to buy, with Anshu brimming like a proud parent.  It’s amazing how dignity and satisfaction add so much beauty to faces.  

There is much to be proud of, but he is conscious of the scale of problems that we are facing today.  Anshu’s dissatisfaction with the way NGOs and people in the development sector are spoken about is evident.  There is mostly a one-dimensional view of the people and work that NGOs are involved in with no comprehension of what it takes to keep the wheels in motion.  Callous comments made by armchair critics, advising NGOs to collaborate, to be efficient, to be cost-effective without any evidence to the contrary, grate him deeply and he speaks for everyone, not just for himself.

I have heard many times in conferences and meetings how people speak of having sacrificed personal dreams, corporate high paying jobs to work in the development sector.  It is not the compliment they are looking for.  In fact, it reduces from the heart and soul that has gone into creating a path for oneself in the universe of humanitarian work. 

Being able to pursue the work he wanted to, with the support of strong allies, living a humble existence with those who care for him.  Where is the sacrifice in all of this? Anshu rightfully asks.  However, years of focus on the mission does take a toll on the hours one can spend with family, there are so many momentous occasions, joys and sorrows that he has missed.  Are there any regrets?

And here for the first time, I see vulnerability.  The work that Goonj and hundreds of fantastic NGOs do in India is very hard.  The main activity is to seek the distressed and within them seek the most distressed.  The journey is challenging and demands dedication consuming people and their personal lives. It has consumed him and his family too.

Anshu with his daughter Urvi. (Pic. courtesy: Anshu's SM)

The guilt of visiting his daughter’s school for the first time when she was in grade 11, not as a parent but as a Chief Guest hit him hard.  His pride in Urvi, how she is her best version in times of crisis, is evident. His regret in the realization that the little one had grown up without his active presence.  The regret of not having spent enough time with his strong loving mother before she fell critically ill, watching her dignified struggle through that time but still receiving her unconditional love till her last day.  The admiration for Mini, his partner who led with him from the front through good and bad times.  It is obvious how much these things play on his mind.  But would he have had it any other way?  I’m not so sure.

Meenakshi or Mini, Urvi and Anshu, shortly after he recovered from Covid-19 and tested negative. (Pic. courtesy: Anshu's SM)

Anshu speaks of his privilege instead.  He is privileged to have had a dream, to be able to work on it and to see his dream come to fruition. After all, how many of us can claim to be living a life we want following the purpose of our choice and have thousands and lakhs join the dream we had dreamt?  

I am in turn grateful for my privilege.  After all, how many of us get touched by goodness in motion, by purposeful conduct, by ordinary people showing extraordinary empathetic action.  It is my privilege to have had a chance to know this inspiring individual, his beautiful family and this outstanding dream, now a movement called Goonj.

In the fight against covid, Goonj has been at the forefront of a pan India relief effort. Join them by contributing here:

naghma mulla

Owner of the loudest laugh in the room and a development sector professional by day, Naghma is a by-mistake CA, who writes what she feels and feels what she writes.