Old habits give way to changed attitude and a healthier life
As a supervisor in Superhouse Limited, one of the oldest tanneries in Unnao in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Mohammad Shoaib spends most of his working hours in close proximity to its workers. Beyond their names, he knows about their health, their families, and their domestic issues. He is also keenly aware of their habits. Like the hurried washing of hands from the taps used for tanning work at lunch hour, or leaving the toilets dirty after use. “Habits cannot change overnight, but ever since the training sessions on water and sanitation, there has been a marked difference in the behaviour of the workers,” Shoaib observed, “It is definitely a welcome change.”
Superhouse Limited employs around 350 people who work in shifts of eight hours, processing raw hides to finished leather goods. These products are then mostly exported outside India. However, this water-intensive industry does not always deliver the best to its own workers when it comes to safe drinking water, hand-washing stations, and toilets. In Superhouse, for example, there were just two toilets with two urinals each and two drinking water stations of which one was often dysfunctional. The state of hygiene for the workers' community, therefore, was dismal.
Even then, in September 2019, when WaterAid, with the support of HSBC, began its intervention work on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for tannery workers in Unnao, the initial response among the workforce was that of hesitation. This is because not only was there inadequacy of infrastructure, but lack of awareness on the subject too.
“Earlier, dot at 12.30 p.m. the workers would quickly wash their hands with some water from the taps near the machines, wipe on their trousers, and eat their food. We had two drinking-water stations then, but most would say that walking to and fro would waste their time; therefore they would drink from the taps near the machines instead,” Shoaib explained. The tannery is a massive space of various departments where heaps of leather lie in piles over heavy machinery, or on carts, in different stages of processing.
When four hand-washing stations were installed in such a way that every department was now close to one, it solved the problem Shoaib mentioned. Similarly, where there were just two drinking water facilities, four such stations with multiple taps were put up close to the departments for ease of access.
Habits, as Shoaib mentioned, are however not easy to change. And therefore, training sessions on the importance of hygiene began to be conducted for the workers in which they were taught the proper way to wash their hands and how lack of hygiene was the reason they were becoming vulnerable to diseases.
“These training sessions and the new infrastructure was especially beneficial during the COVID period,” Shoaib said. As the tannery resumed work after the nation-wide lockdown in response to the pandemic was called off, the company adopted several precautions to keep its workers safe. “During this time, the training on hygiene helped the workers become extra vigilant about cleanliness. With more facilities, there was no crowding in the toilets too. The WaterAid team also provided the workers with sanitisers, masks, nail clippers, and other such things,” he added.
In the seven years that he has worked here, Shoaib said that he has seen at least a 50 per cent improvement in the overall hygiene condition among the workers.
Yet another initiative—of installing a rainwater harvesting structure—has also benefitted the company. “We are a water-intensive industry; we need water in every process. We use 250 kilolitres of water every day and all of this is groundwater which we access by boring,” Shoaib said. In the last monsoon however, the rainwater gathered could be used for processing of the hides, thereby saving on the boring water. “This saved us the cost of boring and was therefore beneficial both for the company as well as for the environment.”
Nothing inspires change more than change itself. Superhouse is now in the midst of planning the installation of a water treatment plant that will make the effluent water from the factory potable. “We generate almost 200 kilolitre of effluent water, which is treated before let out. Now a project to treat this waste water and connect it to an RO such that it can be used for drinking purposes, is underway,” Shoaib said.