Vantage point

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Think before you empty your cupboard for them

Whenever calamity strikes, the common people contribute in whatever way possible. The most basic help we all offer is clothes. We donate some old-but-wearable clothes to the charities who are collecting them. But are they really that useful?

I never really gave this issue much thought before I read Amit Varma's tsunami despatches. In several posts like this one, he tells us that the clothes often end up aggravating the relief work rather than helping. A few excerpts -

old clothes, although people love to clear out their cupboards and donate them, generally go waste, and often lie strewn around disaster areas. Even poor people don't fancy old clothes, especially when they've never worn anything like it before. I spotted sweaters in a box of clothes that came into Aid India today, and that is just ridiculous.

Many of the relief supplies that we saw reaching Tamil Nadu were redundant – old clothes being a case in point. To make sure that relief for the next disaster is focussed, it is important to carry out an evaluation of what kind of supplies came in handy here.

As the rainclouds finally start sparing Mumbai, relief work will start. Already I see posts like this and this on the Cloudburst Blog, announcing where people can send their donations and old clothes.

I request the NGOs to draw on the lessons learnt from the tsunami, documented so well by Amit here. We already know that plastic bags ended up clogging a lot of drains. Let us not have a pile of clothes, which no one will probably wear, add to the problems.

In the tsunami, tens of thousands lost their houses, and everything else they owned. even then the piles of clothes were causing a nuisance in Tamilnadu. The scale of homelessness is a lot lesser in numbers in Mumbai. If all conscientious Mumbaikars donate clothes, you will probably have a thousand clothes per homeless person, which even if the homeless person is willing to wear hand-me-downs, is a colossal waste..

Another thing to consider. The textile industry is no longer in the Mahatma-Gandhi-Munshi-Premchand days. Buying clothes is no longer as much of a concern for even the poorest as it once was, at least in the cities. Just try and recall the poor people you have seen on the streets, in local trains, and in slums. Do you recall seeing a lot of half-naked and barely clad folks? I frankly don't and unless all my life I have seen a slice of life that does not truly represent urban India, clothes is not really too much of a concern for the poor any more.

So let us concentrate the relief efforts in more relevant directions. let us not empty our cupboards and feel good about helping the flood-hit poor when actually we may just be adding to our city's garbage and clogging.