How do you produce millions of coveralls (a key part of personal protective equipment or PPE) that health care workers need when dealing with something as infectious as the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), when, till last month, they were mostly imported ?
How do you do so, and quickly, when no one had a design specification till February 27?
For 17 firms that have been tasked with making the coveralls — Hindustan Times spoke to six of them — it is a race against time that involves dealing with raw material shortage, workers worried about their safety, and learning to quickly produce under the watchful and anxious eyes of the government.
And for the only laboratory that tests them, it simply means working around the clock.
It’s an experience that Tanmay Singhal, a recent graduate of OP Jindal School, didn’t anticipate in the first year of joining his father’s business. Their Haryana-based firm, Sai Synergy, was a supplier of fire protective gear that was used by oil rig workers in West Asia, till February. That’s when it received an SOS from the textile and health ministries of the Government of India. Director of Research and Development in the textiles ministry, Balram Kumar, reached out to the company to attend a meeting.
At the meeting, there were a handful of other companies; all had one thing in common: they worked with or made unwoven fabric (used to make the protective clothes).
The agenda of the meeting was simple: could these companies make PPEs?
“We were ready but it took some time and paperwork for the manufacturing to start,’’ said Singhal. The work started two weeks ago and, on a good day, when trucks aren’t stuck at the highway because of the lockdown, the unit produces 12,000 to 15,000 of these suits.
“The raw material is coming from Bangalore for us and so many times they get stranded, else we didn’t have any problems delivering our order,’’ said Singhal. Neither Singhal, nor the other firms, were willing to specify the exact orders that the government had placed with them. However, supply of raw materials is a common challenge for all of them.
Nisheeth Dand of the Vadodara-based firm, Sure Safety, which is also involved in the production of these coveralls, said that the company is slowly trying to increase the pace of production but the lockdown isn’t helping. His raw materials also come from different parts of the country and their flow is proving to be a bottleneck. There is help, though — in the form of nodal and field officers that the government has assigned to each of these firms, so that they can troubleshoot, call the local administration in the area that a particular truck is stuck in, but the delays are inevitable.
Then, there are other obstacles.
“I have 180 workers in my unit but right now only 44% are coming to work,’’ said Dand. “Their families won’t allow them, they are scared so the only thing I can offer them is higher pay.’’
So for coming to the factory in times of lockdown, Dand says, he pays a worker who would usually get Rs 15,000 , Rs 25,000. “It’s not just labour, even the raw materials have become expensive. I know banks have been told to help us but they are totally unresponsive. They should be giving us interest-free credit.’’
Despite these hurdles, Sure Safety is producing more and more kits every day. If it was 500 earlier, it is now 700 and the company hopes to be able to increase it to 1,500 soon.
If it isn’t a supply problem, it’s the problem of learning to run a factory with social distancing, to take care of workers’ needs and concerns. At the Mumbai-based Venus Safety and Health Private Limited factory, which is the only one of two producers of N 95 masks in the country, this involves free food, free medical camps and upping the hygiene conditions for the 700-800 workers that work there.
The company’s chief marketing officer, Ravi Shinde, said: “We have increased the space that’s occupied by individual workers and even though I am sure they have concerns, they know that this is for the country and so haven’t really objected to working.’’ Earlier the company was producing 2.5 lakh masks daily and now it is hoping to amp up their production to 3.5- 4 lakh per day.
Every step of the way, the textile ministry’s officials are keeping an eye. Vijay Shankar of Shree Hari Healthcare in Chennai said that several ministry officials arrived at his unit on March 20, the day production started. “We normally wouldn’t work with the government but this was an urgent moment and we felt we had to pitch in,’’ said Shankar. He has been lucky with raw materials for his coveralls, with the ministry suggesting alternative sources when his were stuck. However, the challenge has been to take care of his workforce, majority of which are women.
“We are working at a feverish pace but we can’t do so at the cost of their health,’’ he said. The company has mandatory hand wash hygiene breaks every hour and a compulsory Sunday off but the pace of production is “satisfactory”.
The Kolkata-based Frontier Protective Wear has just started production of its coveralls in its Gurugram unit and will start in the Kolkata unit on Monday. “The ministry has assured us that we will continue to get all supplies that we need, so I am confident that we can deliver on time,’’ said Sweta Chaudhry Singh, one of the promoters.
The one place that is stretched is Sitra, the government testing lab in Coimbatore that is receiving each of the samples from the manufacturers. “Before, we would get one sample a week,’’ said Prakash Vasudevan of Sitra. “Now we are getting 15-20 samples a day.’’ Considering that the lab has only four or five people working during the lockdown, it means that workdays go on till 2 or 3am. “We need to clear each sample that comes in daily and so we are really stretched.’’
So when all 17 of these firms have fulfilled their orders and they are tested and ready to go, will this fulfil India’s protective gear deficit? Last week, Reuters reported that India needed around 38 million masks and 6.2 million pieces of PPE to take care of Covid-19 patients, quoting an internal report from Invest India. Invest India said it had contacted 730 companies for ventilators, ICU monitors, protective equipment, masks and testing kits, of which 319 firms had responded.
An official of the textile ministry, which is tasked with the all important coveralls and masks, said that they are hopeful of hitting peak production by the middle of the month.
Last week, the government issued a statement detailing its plans to procure 6.2 million PPEs desperately needed across the country. The three-week lockdown in India till April 14 will, if successful, flatten the curve of the disease’s spread — giving the administration enough time to stockpile enough medical equipment, including masks. People like Singhal are at the forefront of that effort.