Goonj’s Vaapsi: restoring India’s rural economy by promoting green living

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Amid a global pandemic, Indian NGO Goonj is helping the rural and vulnerable communities of India earn a green and sustainable livelihood.

The coronavirus pandemic’s consequences have been harsh in almost every country. India’s had it worse than most. The world’s largest democracy has faced disruption on both social and economic fronts. The country experienced a whopping 3.1% drop in its GDP in the 2020 fiscal year. Moreover, the pandemic affected the vulnerable and blue-collar populations the most. Whether it was the migrant crisis or unemployment, the poor paid the heaviest price.

To combat this humanitarian crisis, NGOs introduced many social welfare programs. Goonj is one such NGO. Goonj aims to fight social inequality in the economic, social, environmental, and education sectors. Through its initiatives, the organisation bridges the gap of opportunities between rural and urban India.

Goonj bases most of its initiatives on sustainability and development. “Goonj envisions [growth] as an idea across regions, economies and countries using urban discard as a tool to alleviate poverty and enhance dignity,” a representative told me.

Be it: whether it’s through Dignity for Work (DFW), an initiative that recycles old materials for rural community and infrastructure development, or Green by Goonj, a project that provides employment through reusing and upcycling, it is all aimed at sustainable living. According to the organisation, when canals are cleaned, wells dug or roads made, “the rural residents pool in not just their local resources but also their wisdom and learnings to adopt practices that are in the best interest of the environment”.

The word ‘goonj’ directly translates to ‘echo’ in Hindi, and the organisation echoes the sentiments of welfare, sustainability, rehabilitation, and development. One initiative that represents all these sentiments is the Vaapsi – Restoring Lives project.

Goonj first launched Vaapsi in 2008 to aid and restore the lives of the victims of the Kosi floods in Bihar. The initiative’s aim, as the name implies, is to help restore the lives of those affected. Vaapsi is “centred deeply [on] upholding the dignity of people”, Goonj has “used this negative to strengthen and sharpen our resolve to restore the dignity of these people with our local livelihood initiative”.

With its data analysis, the organisation mapped out around 50 viable occupations that would help restore the livelihoods of those affected. The occupations cover a wide range of sustainable jobs. Those professions include barbers, tailors, rickshaw pullers, and cobblers, among others. Through the initiative, Goonj designs and provides occupational kits to the individuals restarting their lives — for instance, the NGO will provide a tailor with a sewing machine and a barber with a haircutting kit to help them get started.

The Vaapsi program has helped many and continues to aid those most affected by the coronavirus. As mentioned, the pandemic led to a migrant crisis across the country. Within 24 hours of the announcement of the lockdown, India’s migrants were left jobless and helpless.

goonj vaapsi
Photo: Goonj/Twitter

So, to afford life, millions of people began their journeys back to their villages. Some walked, some rode bicycles, some drove their autorickshaws, and some took buses for thousands of kilometres. Hundreds of migrants lost their lives during their cruel journey. Among them were several children.

For those who made it back in one piece, the journey still left them with no source of income. The Vaapsi initiative stepped up and provided opportunities to the previous city-dwelling workers. Under the initiative, the NGO aims to provide a source of sustainable income to around 10,000 families.

One example of Vaapsi’s Covid-19 initiative is taking place in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The project encouraged agricultural and daily wage labourers as well as handloom weavers to build hand fans and weave baskets from sustainable resources like bamboo and recycled wood. Goonj then purchases those fans and baskets for its other relief initiatives.

Furthermore, in Maharashtra, a state in the west, Vaapsi has facilitated a sustainable community farming program. The NGO supported over 160 families by helping them secure a land lease, contributing towards their first year’s rent, and providing them with seeds and farming equipment. Since June 2020, the farmers have produced over 400kg of an array of organic vegetables. These include cauliflower, soybean, and cabbage. Additionally, this initiative has provided employment opportunities to women and allowed them to be financially independent.

The initiative contributed significantly to restarting India’s rural economy amid this pandemic. Goonj’s Vaapsi initiative seeks to provide a life of dignity, not charity, to the vulnerable of our societies. The Goonj representative says: “By focusing on the receiver’s dignity rather than the donor’s pride, we promote the circular economy by ensuring maximum use of each material.”

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