On March 25, the first day of the lockdown, Rupali Ramachandra Powanikar was in her small home with her husband, two sons and Rs 4 lakh worth of fabric that she had intended to stitch into school uniforms for Pune convent schools.
“But people began to cancel orders as schools were closed and unlikely to open anytime soon. Suddenly, I had a lot of cloth in the house but no money or food for the family,” says Powanikar, 34, a home tailor from Dhayari in Pune’s Benkar Basti. “My husband, a cutter, and I were very tense as we had to pay rent in a few days, household expenses to meet and a young son with a heart condition, for which he needs expensive medicine,” she adds.
It was a time when a new item of clothing was beginning to be spoken of frequently, even by the Prime Minister. “I told my husband, ‘Don’t be tense. We have fabric, in checks, lining, hosiery and plain. We will make a lot of masks,” says Powanikar. The couple worked through the night and, by the time day broke, Powanikar had a large collection to sell on the streets. There were few people out but a number of those who were, from policemen to essential workers, became her first customers. The next day, too, she sold out her stock of masks.
Across Pune, scores of daily wage labourers and migrant workers were beginning to make long journeys home to their villages as earning opportunities died in the city. Powanikar represents the micro-entrepreneurs of the city who were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, but managed to fight the economic hardship by adapting.
A buyer came back and told her the quality was good and if she would take a bulk order for masks. “Now, I supply to hospitals, homes and organisations and people also come home to buy masks. I make between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 on most days. We have managed to put food on the table though our family is still not out of financial troubles,” she says. Even today, Powanikar can be seen on the streets, highways and marketplaces, wearing mask and gloves, selling her array of masks to passers-by for Rs 50 a packet.
Powanikar is associated with an organisation called Mann Deshi Foundation, where she learnt to operate computers and, now, holds online training workshops on mask-making for hundreds of other women. “Masks come in different sizes as well as designs, from round masks to single or double layered, with elastic or knotted, among others. I also make mobile phone videos to spread awareness about mask making. At Mann Deshi, alone, we have made more than 1 lakh masks,” says Powanikar.