Sonam had never stepped out of Mumbai. But when she did she not only changed her life, but that of hundreds of salt pan workers in Tamil Nadu. Here is her story of change and how she is giving them access to much needed urinals.
Sonam Dumbre had never stepped out of Maharashtra. Born and brought up in Mumbai, this 24-year old girl was raised under the care and protection of a loving family. After completing her post-graduation in Environmental Sciences, she got a good job as a sales executive. But one fine day, a general visit to the SBI website changed her life for good.
She saw a link on the website about SBI’s Youth for India fellowship. As she explored and read more about the initiative she became more interested in it
And the next thing she knew, she was packing her bags to shift to Kovilthavu salt pans, Vedaranyam, Tamil Nadu.
“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.
“It was all so random. I had never imagined that I will be doing something like this. But what caught my attention was the uniqueness of the fellowship. Here we had to do everything from scratch – from finding the problem we wanted to solve to implementing the solution. We have to take ownership of everything and create a real impact,” 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 chose Tamil Nadu as I wanted to explore a place I had never been to before. The language, the people – everything was different. I had already decided that I will work with salt pan workers and address the issues faced by them,” she says.
When Sonam reached the venue, she talked to the locals and found that most of the salt pan workers suffered from dehydration and poor health. The reason was quite shocking.
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 labourers and it takes a lot of time to reach the peripheries of salt pans which are located at least one kilometre away from the site, reducing their productivity and earning potential.
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: one of them is a basic simple design where urine+water waste is passed to a concrete bed planted with salt and urea absorbing plants thus making it a zero liquid discharge unit. The plants can be harvested from time to time and used as fodder for animals.
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“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 started her fellowship in September 2014, Sonam has come a long way. From feeling like an outsider to becoming friends with the community, this young girl has come out of the shell she lived in and not only changed her life but that of others who needed her help.
The saltpan stretch is 118 acres wide. The 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.
From dressing up like the locals to understanding the language, Sonam has been trying her best to fit in. And the impact of her efforts is visible when the community shows trust in her work and hopes for a change.
“Earlier it was very difficult for me to break the ice. But gradually I have become part of the community. The journey has transformed me completely. I am no more a shy girl from Mumbai, 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.
“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.
Describing her entire experience of the fellowship, Sonam says it is a great platform to explore and come out of your comfort zone. We hope to see more young professionals like Sonam come forward and make a difference in the lives of those who need it the most.