Behind the face of fashion lies an artisan world where the fight against Covid-19 begins with water and toilets

Posted by
Lisa Martin
30 September 2020
WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee

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As communities and businesses return to some sense of normal amid the Covid-19 crisis, the virus has sharpened the world’s focus on the need for good hygiene to protect lives and build resilient, productive supply chains. WaterAid is helping the garment industry ‘build back better’ by improving working conditions for artisans and leather and garment workers, starting with the basics – water, soap and toilets.

With the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus cases now over 6.3 million, many of India’s struggling businesses have moved online. For the artisan craftspeople of Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, this is not an option. This bustling city in northern India is the traditional home of ‘Chikankari’, a delicate style of hand-sewn embroidery onto a variety of fabrics ranging from fine cottons to luxurious silks, creating beautiful garments popular worldwide.

A drop in demand due to the industry’s peak time of summer, Eid and wedding season coinciding with lockdown, coupled with a consumer instinct to prioritise necessity over discretionary spending, potentially spells poverty for millions of workers. Those hardest hit often have only limited water supplies and poor sanitation, meaning disease is rife and hand hygiene at this crucial time, almost impossible.

International charity WaterAid, with funding from HSBC, is building sustainable supplies of clean water, decent toilets and improving hygiene awareness in artisan communities around Lucknow. These facilities - essential for life and crucial during a pandemic - not only improve the health and well-being of workers and their families, they are vital in ensuring the continuity of supply chains throughout the garment industry.

Sashi Rawat lives in Sadamau village. She embroiders her chikankari designs onto kurtas (a long loose shirt), and each item takes up to seven days’ work, for which she earns between Rs20 and Rs50 per kurta (20p to 50p). WaterAid has provided clean water for her community and is helping construct toilets. These facilities bring an end to wasting hours collecting water, which affected her work and kept her children away from school. It is also improving health, reducing sickness and money spent on medicines.

Sashi said:

“We had so many struggles before we had clean water, many were related to hygiene which caused health problems and led to wastage of a lot of money [on medicines] and affected my work. But now I’m happy. Healthy family, happy family!”

Fellow Chikankari worker, Ramvati, also lives in Sadamau. She hopes consistent good health, following the availability of clean water, will improve her ability to work without interruption.

Ramvati said:

“We have a better understanding of cleanliness and hygiene now, with the easy access of water. My family is adopting good hygiene behaviour that I hope results in better performance in our artisan work that results in more income.”

Lifesaving health and hygiene messages are delivered by WaterAid and its partners to the communities in creative, memorable ways. Through socially-distanced street performances, ‘mashal juloos’ (candlelit gatherings) and rallies, additional hygiene kits are distributed to artisans and their families containing essentials such as soap and menstrual hygiene products.

Chikankari artisan, Mehzebi, neatly stitches her work sitting outside her home in Muslim Nagar village. She now understands the wider benefits of handwashing, particularly during the pandemic.

Mehzebi said:

“In the old days, I generally did not wash my hands because the water supply would be finished, but that [led to] several health problems and a lot of money spent during illness on travel [to the doctor] and medicines. But now I can wash my hands with soap - and the best thing is that washing hands helps protect us from coronavirus and other diseases.”

Salman, 25, lives in Rajauli on the outskirts of Lucknow. He’s a Zardozi (or Zari) worker, meticulously forming beautiful patterns with beads and crystals onto metres of fabric for the garment industry. Until recently, one of Salman’s greatest challenges, magnified by being a wheelchair-user, was not having a toilet at home. With no option but to openly defecate in the fields, it was a treacherous mission as his wheelchair sometimes overturned, plus it was time-consuming, impacting on his productivity.

Salman, who now has a waterpoint and a wheelchair-friendly toilet just outside his home, said:

“Things are so easy for me now. At least there is one thing less to worry about. I don’t have to think about curtailing my intake of water or eating less than I want to.”

Globally, every dollar invested in clean water, good hygiene and decent toilets returns $5.50 in increased productivity. From small artisanal communities or large factories, a healthy and contented workforce leads to higher productivity, fewer errors, reduced absenteeism and overall enhanced economic benefit.

Farrukh Khan, WaterAid India’s Regional Manager North, Programmes and Policy said:

"Our work in India's traditional Chikankari and Zardozi artisan communities ensures families have a reliable source of clean drinking water, a decent private place to go to the toilet, and hygienic handwashing facilities. These improvements provide long-term resilience to crises such as floods and droughts, and currently the coronavirus pandemic. All businesses are searching for new ways to survive the pandemic, but from the human perspective, WaterAid is giving people the tools to remain healthy and well."

Ruth Romer, Senior Private Sector Advisor at WaterAid, said: 

“The health of artisans, textile producers, and leather and garment workers in the global south, underpin the success of the clothing industry in a post-COVID-19 world. Opportunities now exist in all businesses to ‘build back better’ in the wake of the coronavirus, and access to clean water, good hygiene and decent toilets for all workers must be prioritised, be they artisans at home, or factory workers in towns and cities.

“With one in ten people globally lacking clean water at home and one in four having no decent toilets, it’s vital to consider the communities where workers live, to reinforce both social and economic resilience.” 

WaterAid has been working with global supply chain workers; supporting the provision of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene for more than a decade with the support and funding of global partners including HSBC.

WaterAid’s guidance on prioritising hygiene for business resilience, COVID-19 Guidance: Prioritising hygiene for workforce health and business resilience. 


For more information, please contact: 

Lisa Martin, Senior Media Officer; [email protected].
Or call our after-hours press line on +44 (0)7887 521 552,
or email [email protected]

Notes to Editors: 

Source: Indian cases of Covid-19 coronavirus cases, 5.7 million, 24 Sept 2020, World Health Organisation


WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organisation works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 26.4 million people with clean water and 26.3 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAid or @WaterAidPress on Twitter, or find WaterAid UK on Facebook at

  • 785 million people in the world – one in ten – do not have clean water close to home.[1]
  • 2 billion people in the world – almost one in four – do not have a decent toilet of their own.[2]
  • Around 310,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's almost 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.[3]
  • Every £1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of £4 in increased productivity.[4]
  • Just £15 can provide one person with clean water.[5]

[1] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

[2] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

[3] Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)

[4] World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage