Pooja Iyengar, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh speaks to Lockdown Voices
Cover image credit: Swasti Mehta, Delhi
Today, Covid-19 thrives at the core of human existence. Our coveted material needs have suddenly lost their glamour. Now, the need is more basic – food , shelter and good health. In these unusual times, to step out of home and keep safe, there is a new essential – a mask.
Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK) is making cotton masks in thousands to cater to the entire city of Bhopal. Lockdown Voices was able to interview Pooja Iyenger, Director MSK, in midst of her no-time-to-breathe schedule.
Lockdown Voices: Pooja, thank you for finding time for this interview. In the current environment, it is tough to start any new project. What motivated MSK to take up this challenging task of making masks in bulk?
Pooja Iyenger: When I was going out to distribute food packets and ration to daily wagers, I saw that none of them had masks, and a mask was mandatory for COVID protection. So we decided that since our ladies knew how to stitch, we taught them how to make masks through a YouTube tutorial. They started making masks and distributing them in all the nearby bastis. We also saw that the masks being used were single-use masks which would later cause more problems. So my aim was to make cotton re-usable masks which people could wash and wear.
MSK has been continuously working with the BMC (Bhopal Municipal Corporation) in their 4R campaign to reduce single use plastic in the city. Skilled at stitching, MSK members had stitched nearly 8000 cotton bags out of old, used clothes for distribution in the city to reduce plastic bags. Once the Corona pandemic hit the city, MSK being one of the ‘Swachhata Brand Ambassadors’ took it on itself to help out in every way possible. MSK was the foremost organisation that started making cotton washable masks, even before the lockdown.
LV: But did you face any roadblocks in sourcing raw material once lockdown was declared?
PI: After the lockdown announcement, all shops were shut, and there was a huge demand for masks. We needed to source cotton material. We started using all the cloth that we had in our center (which we had purchased to make dresses) for making masks. Once that was used up, we got in touch with the whole-sellers at the cotton market. They came together, and as a humanitarian gesture gave the cloth stocked in their houses to us to make masks.
LV: Indeed, this is heartening to hear. But it also must have been difficult when lockdown led to the closure of the MSK center. What was the approach you followed in adapting to a “work from home” situation ? Did the MSK ladies face any major issues?
PI: Our ladies were very used to a hand holding approach when our center was open and functioning. After lockdown we had to rely on WhatsApp video chats and lot of YouTube tutorials to make them understand how to stitch masks. Initially, following the YouTube instructions was a huge task. But now they have the hang of it. It made them more confident and more independent. And we arranged sewing machines for them from our center so that they could stitch at home.
LV: Glad that MSK work never stopped! Now, what kind of demand do you see for these masks? And how many are you able to produce?
PI: As I had mentioned, due to the lockdown the ladies couldn’t go to the stitching center so they stayed at home, and till now, have stitched around 10,000 cotton masks. Masks are a part of our lives now. Even if the lockdown opens, masks are mandatory. So there is a huge demand. Earlier we had around 30 ladies making masks. Now, the entire community in the Dwarka Nagar area are making masks. We have got corporate orders, bank orders, Govt. orders to make masks to the tune of around 50,000 and its increasing by the day. We have tried a variety of masks, cotton, khadi, printed and the orders are pouring. We will continue to serve the people of Bhopal till the crisis ends.
LV: “Masks for All” is a necessity and indeed a commendable vision for MSK. But demand being much more than supply, how did you prioritise?
PI: MSK started by distributing masks to all the essential services personnel, who cannot stay at home. MSK members are not on the frontline, but doing their bit to help the frontline warriors like the police personnel, CM-helpline employees, security guards and sanitation workers
LV: Recently, you were able to restart work at your center. What safety measures did you take for your team? Have practices like social distancing impacted productivity?
PI : We have started our center with special permission to make as many masks as possible, keeping in mind all precautions. Our center is sanitised every week and all ladies wash their hands after every hour and use hand sanitisers. Social distancing is strictly maintained. The ladies can’t hang out or sit together and eat lunch – that’s the only sad part. Now, 50 per cent work force comes, rest stay home and make masks. Our productivity has not been hampered because our ladies work from home as well.
LV: Are there any other lockdown initiatives that you or MSK is involved in?
PI: I am an integral part of Peoples Collective (a group of Swachhata Brand Ambassadors) that distributes food and ration to daily wagers, students and construction workers. Together, a small fund has been collected and provisions have been bought for distribution. The ration kit also includes 4 re-usable cotton masks. Once the food is distributed, the team carries out a COVID-19 awareness session with the slum dwellers as well.
LV: It is clear that you and your team are putting your heart and soul to this project. What has been your greatest personal return?
PI: My ladies are my strength on my personal front. I am working with BMC in distributing food packets and other essentials to the migrants crossing the city. We have started a huge city wide drive to collect shoes and other essentials for the migrants and nearly 15,000 pairs have been collected. Every day we are out distributing biscuits, snacks, choora, namkeen, water bottles, towels, soaps and masks to the migrants crossing Bhopal. They are coming from Maharashtra going all the way to UP. It is extremely fulfilling that I am able to help people in this crisis and also provide livelihood to my ladies. Since the husbands of all the ladies are daily wagers, women at the center are the prime bread winners right now.
LV: Thank you, Pooja. This was an eye opener. On behalf of all the readers and contributors of Lockdown Voices, we wish you and MSK the best with your much needed initiatives. We look forward to sharing more of your unique experiences and stories with our readers in days to come.
Pooja Iyengar is the Director of Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK), an all women’s non –profit organisation working on sustainable livelihood since 1992. MSK was founded by Ms Indira Iyengar who worked with the Missionaries of Charity to respond to the needs of victims during the Bhopal gas tragedy. She initiated the idea of empowering the women of the affected communities to access and generate livelihoods for both income generation and self-reliance and brought together the voice of these women to express their demand for a vocational training center to be set up for those who had survived the gas tragedy.