When one man’s better health means a better life for six
There was a time when 57-year-old Shri Ram would miss almost half a month of work in the tannery he is employed in because of various illnesses. “Stomach ache, pain in joints, fever, there was always something or the other,” he said. This frequent absence from work resulted in a sizeable portion of his salary being deducted. In the last two years, however, his health has gradually improved. The aches are not as severe or frequent as before and he is able to work more. “The pains have not disappeared but it’s become more manageable and I report for at least 22-25 days of work. Last month I drew almost the whole month’s salary,” he smiled a smile of relief.
Shri Ram is one of the 350 workers employed in one of Unnao’s oldest tanneries, Superhouse Limited. Established in the early 1980s, it is one of the 102 tanneries operational in Unnao in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.
“I started working here as a permanent worker in 1992; however I had been employed as a casual worker since before that least four years before becoming permanent,” Shri Ram said. A work experience of nearly 35 years means that Shri Ram, 57, is familiar with the functioning of the tannery like the back of his hand. “Oh yes, I am quite familiar with all the processes here,” he said, “Initially I was in the department where the raw hides are dipped in a lime-soda solution, which turns them blue. Now I am in the Wet Blue department where we measure and weigh those raw-blue hides.” On average, Shri Ram and three more workers measure and weigh 2400 kg of hides every day. There are 70 people working in his department.
“I know my work well, but a bout of illnesses in the past few years had started interfering with it. Either I would be too sick to report for work, or feel exhausted on joining soon after recovery,” Shri Ram, who lives with his family of six members, said. So much so that he would barely be able to work for 15 days in a month. This reflected poorly on his performance and resulted in a deducted salary of INR 4000 or a little more—insufficient to support his family, “, particularly in the present times when living expenses have become so high”. The family, which included his two grandchildren, therefore had to cut costs and became heavily reliant on Shri Ram’s son who works as a mason.
In September 2019, WaterAid India, with the support of HSBC, approached Superhouse Limited to be a part of its initiative to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions of tannery workers and their families in Unnao. As part of this, a new and more number of toilets, new hand-washing stations, and drinking water stations were built in Superhouse. Training sessions on the correlation between hygiene and health were conducted for the tannery’s workers too.
“When I attended those sessions, I realised that I was probably contributing to my own ill health,” Shri Ram said in retrospect. “I would drink water from one of the taps near the machines in my department. The mouth of those taps would not be clean, touched by several hands during processing, and probably contaminated too. After those sessions, I started washing my hands with soap and drank water from the taps meant for that purpose.”
That the new drinking water station was closer to his department also helped. It meant that unlike earlier times, when walking further away from the water taps was a discouraging thought to many, now there was the ease of access. From two drinking water stations, of which the workers used only one, there are now four stations. There are more number of toilets—two blocks with four units each, instead of a single block with two units earlier—and four hand-washing stations up from none. The new infrastructure, and importantly, the sensitisation on using these facilities in a proper manner, has led to a change in the tannery.
“For me, washing my hands after work, before food, and after using the toilet—with soap—and drinking water from the dedicated space, has improved my health. The stomach ache and pains have reduced and as a result, I can attend work and draw my salary accordingly,” Shri Ram smiled, adding that he took the pamphlets distributed back home to make his family read them too. There is another problem: Sekhpur Nahar, where he lives, does not have “good quality groundwater”, or water that is high in fluoride, which explains Shri Ram’s yellow stained-teeth. But he is now aware of testing water quality and said that they drink water from a source that has been tested to be safe.
“There are times when, despite knowing something is unsafe, we have no choice,” he said, “But the fact that my health is improving and I drew my whole month’s salary last month a little over INR 9000, means that things are changing for me and my family, and that has brought us relief.”