The Uttar Pradesh government’s initiative to make khadi protective masks has come as a relief to artisans who have been without work ever since the 21-day lockdown.
“When this problem started and we heard that there was a shortage of masks, we started to make them from leftover cotton cloth on our own”, says Afsana Khan who heads a self-help group of women chikankari artisans. Under the state’s flagship 'one district one product' scheme, chikan embroidery is Lucknow’s signature product. Much of this is traditionally done on fine cotton.
Even before the lockdown was announced, Khan says orders were not being picked up as there was a general sense of panic over COVID-19. So the group, which is affiliated to the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), turned its attention to making masks —for themselves, their families and neighbours.
A week ago, the state-level team managing the pandemic decided to make and distribute masks of handspun khadi — a natural and breathable fabric. Self-help groups like Khan’s were ready to get on to the job immediately. Besides the members of the SHG, many women with sewing machines at homes were also called upon to undertake the task, the fabric for which came from the Khadi and Village Industries Department.
Ajay Kumar Singh, block development officer of Chinhat in Lucknow says over the last three days since production of masks began, some 4,000 triple layer khadi masks have been made in the block he holds charge of. He estimates that across the eight blocks of Lucknow, this number would stand at 60,000.
“Women are working day and night. The demand for masks is so high that every day we sell out all the stock they produce”, he says.
The khadi masks are moving through cooperatives, government departments and village pradhans. Each mask is being sold for Rs 14 and for every mask produced the women are paid Rs 4.
“Private medicine store owners also want us to supply to them. But we will first fulfill the requirements of pradhans,” says Singh. He adds that village headmen have no funds marked for procurement of masks, but are distributing them out of a sense of ‘service’.
Khan, who was awarded by the state government for her entrepreneurial skills in 2017, says the masks are symbols of empowerment. “The men are at home without work while the women contribute to this very important task. This has made men look at the women with respect. It is the men who come to take the fabric and drop off the finished product at the facilitation centre. The look of relief and gratitude on their faces is visible. To earn Rs 100-200 per day in these difficult times is a respite," she adds.
In addition to masks they make for the department, they also make some for free distribution as well.
Singh says the government is aware that artisans will be amongst the worst hit during the pandemic. “Our next step is to start getting these women to make PPE (personal protective equipment) kits with some quick training. If the situation seems under control by April 30, we will also start production of handmade items that these artisans are skilled in.”
Khan says the women in her group are fearful about what the future holds. “Even when this disease is gone, people will bother about food and essentials. Clothes will not be the top priority. It does not look good for us”, she says.
But for now, the women, hunched over their machines, sew tirelessly to contribute to the fight against the virus.