Can You Choose To Build Toilets Over A High-Paying Job? She did

For 24 years of her life, Mumbai meant the world to her. She had never stepped out of the island city. But when she did she not only changed her life, but also that of hundreds of salt pan workers in Tamil Nadu about whom she had not known. Here is how she identified their needs and fixed the long-withstanding problem.

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Sonam Dumbre was a typical city girl for whom village life and customs was an alien concept. After she completed her post-graduation in environmental science, she bagged got an attractive job as a sales executive with a multinational. But one day, a casual visit to the SBI website changed her life. She noticed information on SBI’s Youth for India fellowship. It made her curious and she couldn’t stop herself from exploring the avenue. As she explored and read more about the initiative she became more interested in it and soon she was ready with her bag and off to Kovilthavu salt pans, Vedaranyam, Tamil Nadu.

Long working hours under the hot sun make the working conditions very difficult for the workers. “Salt work involves rigorous physical labour in high temperatures (40 degree Celsius and above) leading to rapid loss of water from the body which needs to be replaced during the working hours since the body is incapable of storing water for long,” says Sonam.

Different from most others at her age, Sonam was always sure of what she wanted to do. Hence, even before actually visiting the location to start her fellowship, she knew exactly the sector in which she wanted to intervene and the people she wanted to help. I had already decided that I will work with salt pan workers and address the issues faced by them,” she says.

Most of the salt pan workers suffered from dehydration and poor health. Due to a lack of access to toilets near the salt pan, they often did not get to relieve themselves for hours. And to avoid frequent visits to the distant peripheries where they could urinate in open, they stopped having enough water which led to various health issues.

“There aren’t any toilets in the salt pan as the salt might get contaminated and then the traders won’t buy it. Also, it is very hard to construct toilets in those areas as even if you dig two-five feet, you get water from the ground,” says Sonam. In addition to this, many of the workers are daily wage laborers feel walking to such a distance is a loss of productivity and thus their pay.

Considering the plight of these workers, she decided to design a urinal which could be constructed in salt pan areas. She came up with two prototypes. “The design is very simple and yet has not been implemented anywhere in the country,” she says.

Another design she came up with required engineering support as it was based on vacuum evaporation technique. “The first design is what I am more interested in as it is simple and low cost. I am ready with the prototype which I will install by the end of May. Based on the results, we will install more units,” she says. Having to walk a long distance to relieve themselves, the workers do not drink water for the entire day.

Her intervention will benefit 90 families involved in salt production and 250 workers. Apart from this, about 80 people coming from neighbouring hamlets for daily wage labour will also be using the facility.

“I feel great that I am doing something that will lead to a larger impact. The whole experience is liberating,” she says. Sonam wants to continue her work with the same community even after the completion of the fellowship. For the next few years, she wants to research more on the issue and provide better solutions. The workers often fall sick due to dehydration.

“As it is just a year long fellowship, we have a very limited time to do everything. I would like to spend some more time on it and will be more than happy if someone else comes up with a better design,” she says.

Would you offer to do something like this?

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