Through an unusual employment generation initiative, the women of East Midnapore in West Bengal have become the driving force behind the achievement of 100 per cent sanitation in the district.
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 sanitary ware. I earn about Rs 1,000-Rs 1,200 (US$1= Rs 48.75) 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 sanitary ware 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 per cent, going by UNICEF records. This year, the district will apply for 'Nirmal' district status. But the process has been delayed due to the floods, according to Narendranath Burman, Additional District Magistrate, East Midnapore. ('Nirmal Gram Puraskar' is a community-based incentive scheme, which had been started by the central government as one of the major initiatives for the Panchayati Raj Institutions attaining full sanitation coverage.)
"Every woman worker in our unit ensures that her village has cent per cent sanitation and we discourage open defecation by men as well as women," says Tararani Pal, 32, the group leader at Dakshin Narkeldanga, which employs the 22 women. Tararani earns between Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500 per month.
"I realized the benefits of using the sanitary ware 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. "Men don't feel the same shame or fear as women do. But we take the effort to explain to them the benefits of sanitation and hygiene," Usha adds.
For the women, these sanitary ware 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 laborers, rickshaw pullers or daily laborers. Given this reality, employment generation is a paramount concern here.
The work is rigorous and manual but the women have risen to the challenge. "The units operate from makeshift sheds. Most of the time we work in the open sun, be it while casting, cementing, grinding or polishing. But the income makes it all worthwhile," says Saraswati Jana, 32, of Dalhara village. Saraswati has two children and an aged mother-in-law to feed. Her husband is a wastrel, who earns almost nothing. "With an average income of Rs 1,100-Rs 1,500 per month, I can now keep my family from starvation and send my children to school," she says, adding, "I have installed a toilet in my home. If I don't use the product I make, why should others use it?"
Geeta Samanta, 40, of Nirbharpur village, was desperately looking for work when she heard of the Dakshin Narkeldanga unit. She received four days' training in polishing and started work thereafter. Later, she also learnt to cast the squatting plates and pans during a two-and-a-half-month long course. "On an average, an efficient mason can make about five to ten sanitary pans a day or 10-15 pieces of cover pits. We get Rs 10 to Rs 15 per piece, depending on the item. There are different rates for polishing and grinding," she explains.
The sanitary ware is sold at cost price, so that the villagers can easily afford it. A square squatting plate is sold from Rs 640 onwards; cover pits are sold at Rs 300; and sanitary pans are priced at Rs 70. "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 per cent sanitation. The district has seven sanitary ware-making units. Sanitary ware 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 realize the benefits," says Pratibha Jana, 35, a mason at the Pratapdighi unit in East Midnapore.
These water filters are sold for Rs 300 each. A skilled mason can make one filter per day, getting Rs 50 per piece. Compared to sanitary ware, 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 sanitary ware units like ours from where the whole sanitation awareness campaign started off."