Till early last month, members of the Vishwa Karma Self-Help Group (SHG) in Palkwah village of Haroli Block in Himachal Pradesh’s Una district were making shopping bags. Today, their sewing machines are working overtime to stitch face masks required to prevent droplet infection in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sonia Diwan, who leads a team of about 10 women here, says they are devoting as much time as they can spare from farming activities and their household chores to meet the escalating demand for masks. On average, each SHG member produces between 50 and 100 masks a day. “We are receiving ₹4 to ₹5 for stitching a three-layered mask with the material provided by the government.”

Though Diwan and the others admit that money is an incentive, “the fact that the whole exercise is for the benefit of society gives us an added satisfaction” they say.

Vishwa Karma is not the only SHG on the task, 250 self-help groups in several districts of the State have also been roped into making masks. The SHGs have already stitched 1.5 lakh masks and are on the way to completing an order of 2 lakh masks.

Lalit Jain, Director at the Rural Development Department, explains that the mammoth task was given to the women with the twin objective of making available masks at affordable rates to citizens and, at the same time, help members of SHGs earn extra income.

In the State, SHGs are also being involved in stitching personal protective equipment (PPEs) for paramedics and sanitation workers. Over hundred PPEs stitched by women groups in Sarahan and Bagposhag village in Pachhad block of Sirmour district have already been delivered to the Shimla Municipal Corporation.

A day-long training was enough to instruct the women in the skill of stitching PPEs. Anita Sharma, head of production unit ‘She Hat’, which comprises women from SHGs in Bagposhag and Sarahan, says that the project is being executed with pride. “The fact that these PPEs will be used by front line workers in the battle against the virus encourages us to work with extra zeal,” she says.

Some of the women’s group have been trained to prepare sanitisers as well. Women from the ‘Akal’ mahila mandal in Lana Bhalta panchayat in Pachhad block of Sirmour district are busy completing an order of 5,000 sanitisers, says panchayat head Rupinder Kaur.

Living in a difficult terrain and facing extreme climates, villagers in this hill State are used to helping each other and now they are going out of their way to contribute to the national effort. Rajani, who heads the Shri Krishna SHG under the Dev Bhumi Gram Sanghatan from Panjavar village, Haroli Block, is one such example. She took the initiative of collecting wheat, rice, pulses and edible oil to be distributed among labourers, mostly from Bihar, who are unable to earn their daily wages due to the lockdown. Rajani has motivated women from her village and neighbouring ones to collect rations for distribution.

Besides SHGs, nearly 40 inmates of two model jails in the State are producing masks.

“The day Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, there was fear that essentials would go off the shelf because of black marketing in these products. So, it was decided to immediately start production of masks by the inmates of the jails,” says Somesh Goyal, DG Prisons, Himachal Pradesh. The Nahan jail already had two readymade garment assembly units so it was decided to switch over to producing masks. Kandha model jail was also roped in. Also, it was decided to use woven cloth to make double-layered masks. The masks are being made from cotton fabric used by hospitals and can be reused after washing with soap and spraying with sanitiser. Over 3,000 masks are being readied by inmates every day.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi