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Pratima Pal, 38, a mother of two, belongs to a below poverty line (BPL) family. Her husband is a van-rickshaw puller. Her life changed when she got a job in a sanitaryware unit near her village, Rautori. Pratima is one of the 400-odd women masons working in over 15 sanitaryware-making units across East and West Midnapore districts.

The sanitaryware-making units were set up as part of a joint sanitation action plan by Ramkrishna Mission Lokshiksha Parishad (RKMLP) and Unicef, wherein training of the women was undertaken by RKMLP and technical support and funding came from the UN agency. The project is being run in collaboration with the state government and the Midnapore Zilla Parishad.

“I started this work at the Dakshin Narkeldanga unit in East Midnapore to earn money. After receiving training, I started making sanitaryware. I earn about Rs1,000-1,200 (US$1= Rs48.75) per month,” says Pratima.

Shaktipada Jana, Manager, Ramkrishna Mission Cluster Organisation, elaborates, “We give women training for seven days as masons for making sanitary plates, square squatting plates, sanitary pans and cover pits.” Thereafter, they are employed at the units.

While the women have received gainful employment, they, in turn, are ensuring that everyone in their village uses the sanitaryware they are making. As a result, there is no open defecation in East Midnapore any more. When last counted (in 2007), all the 809,854 households here had a toilet. This is a far cry from 1990, when the Midnapore Demand Driven Sanitation Programme was initiated. At that time, sanitation coverage was at a dismal 4.74%, going by Unicef records. The district will also be applying for ‘Nirmal’ district status.

“I realised the benefits of using the sanitaryware I was making. I installed a toilet in my house with the help of the ‘panchayat’ (village council) and convinced others in Rautori to do the same. After all, we needed the business as well to keep the unit going,” informs Pratima.

For Usha Bera, 50, a mason with the Chaitanapur Unit, installing and using toilets is all about dignity. “When toilets are set up in households, women benefit the most. The shame and fear we feel because of defecating in the open, goes. Today, we are proud of our work and proud that we use toilets in our homes,” she says. It is, however, difficult to convince men to follow their good example.

For the women, these sanitaryware units are a godsend for another reason, as well: their income generation potential. In a district that is flood prone, sustenance from agriculture is difficult. Most of the women masons belong to families that have no land. They work largely as farm labourers, rickshaw pullers or daily labourers. Given this reality, employment generation is a paramount concern here. The sanitaryware is sold at cost price, so that the villagers can easily afford it. A square squatting plate is sold from Rs640 onwards; cover pits are sold at Rs300; and sanitary pans are priced at Rs70. “Over the last few years, we have done brisk business even though we sell at cost price. The awareness on sanitation is spreading. Many households are upgrading their old toilets,” says Gouri Bhuniya, 42, a mason at the Srirampur unit in West Midnapore. “The challenge, however, is to ensure that the families continue to use the toilets and don’t revert to open defecation. We make it a practice to carry out regular checks in our villages under the guidance of the Ramkrishna Mission,” she explains.

West Midnapore, going by the recent RKMLP surveys, has achieved about 95% sanitation. The district has seven sanitaryware-making units. Sanitaryware is also supplied to schools and government offices in these areas.

Now, the sanitation project is extending itself to drinking water. People have become conscious about hygiene and are now beginning to question the quality of the water they are drinking. “The iron content in the water here is extremely high. We have now diversified into making iron water filters. It is worthwhile as more and more villagers are buying the filters once they realise the benefits,” says Pratibha Jana, 35, a mason at the Pratapdighi unit in East Midnapore.

These water filters are sold for Rs300 each. A skilled mason can make one filter per day, getting Rs50 per piece. Compared to sanitaryware, the water filter sector is still at a nascent stage, with about 4,397 filters sold in East Midnapore and 1,525 sold in West Midnapore. “This is a beginning though. Water filters have to be bought at market price as there is no funding from panchayats for it. So they are still expensive. However, in my village almost everyone has become aware of basic sanitation rules such as washing hands with soap before eating, wearing shoes or slippers while going out, using the toilets and of course, the need for safe drinking water,” says Tararani.

She adds, with more than a touch of pride, “This is largely due to sanitaryware units like ours from where the whole sanitation awareness campaign started off.”

Ajitha Menon

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