BANGALORE: In 1998, Arunachalam Muruganandam, a man of humble means from a village near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, saw his wife carrying a dirty rag to the bathroom during her menses. He asked her why she didn't use a sanitary napkin and she said that if she did, the family would not have money for milk.
Anguished by the incident, he went to the store to buy a pack of napkins. He saw that the cotton pads that weighed less than 10 grams were sold at Rs. 4, almost 40 times the cost of the raw material. He decided to build a machine that produces low cost sanitary napkins that can be accessed by women all over the country.
In April 2014, TIME magazine recognised Muruganandam as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, for after 16 years of struggle, the man had made 1,300 sanitary napkin production units for various cities in India and 11 other countries and provided employment to over 12,500 women. Three other Indians also featured in the list and they are Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Arundhati Roy.
City Express spoke to Muruganandam about his incredible journey. “When I first got a mail from TIME magazine, I thought it was spam. You know, I keep getting these mails that say I have won ten million dollars, and then when I click on them, they ask for my credit card number,” he laughs.
“Later, when I showed the mail to one of my colleagues, he shook my hand and congratulated me. That is when I realised that it was for real,” he says.
“Going to Manhattan was like a dream. I had only seen such auditoriums and stages on F TV, and suddenly, I was there. I was considered a representative of India and journalists bombarded me with questions about the culture and economy of the country. What do I know? I'm a school dropout!” he chuckles.
Fighting it out
Muruganandam's invention of the sanitary napkin production unit did not happen overnight. Being a man, he had troubles communicating with women about the issues they face during menstrual cycle. His wife Shanthi, who cooperated with his experiments in the beginning, soon thought he was going crazy and filed for a divorce. His mother, who walked in on him while he was examining a bunch of used napkins, abandoned him too. With no one to give him feedback on his prototypes, he started trying out the pads himself and used a football bladder of goat blood to pump fluid into the towel. When he walked around in bloodstained dhotis, people of his village thought he had some sexually transmitted disease and ostracised him. Reminiscing his days of struggle, Muruganandam says, “I was left all alone in life, but I wasn't disheartened even for a minute.”
After five years of hard work and collaboration with a textile mill owner in Coimbatore, Muruganandam devised the unit, which was entered in the National Innovation Award Competition held at IIT Madras. Out of 943 entries, his project won the award, and he received it from the then President Pratibha Patil.
The recognition shot him into the limelight. His wife came back to him, and he was accepted by his villagers once again. “The people, who had neglected and insulted me when I was struggling, said they always knew I had it in me,” he smiles wryly.
“The society will beat, bruise and kill you, if you let it. You need to have faith in yourself and keep doing what needs to be done,” he says.
To Empower Women, Start with Girls
“Only 12 per cent of the women in the country use sanitary napkins today. Using my machines and an all-women business model, I want the technology to reach all women in India,” he says and goes on to add, “This will have an impact on the GDP of the country.”
“Young girls stop going to school after puberty because they don't have access to reliable sanitary pads. They use dangerously unhealthy substances like sand, ash and even hay during their menses, leading to numerous diseases. By providing them these pads, we can educate, employ and empower scores of women across the country,” he explains.
Muruganandam's business model aims at appointing a woman resident dealer in every village. “Women can walk up to the dealer for sanitary pads at any time. If they don't have money to pay for the inexpensive pads, they can exchange it for potatoes or onions through the barter system. Will any multinational company come forward to do such a thing?” he asks.
The entire endeavour has taught Muruganandam a lesson or two in the strength of a woman. “I dare every man, who boasts of his masculinity, to try going around with a wet cloth in his underwear for a day. I assure you that you will fall sick. Now, imagine a woman going through this for three days every month and not compromising on her life,” he says. “God made women so much stronger than men. But somehow over the years, women have forgotten what they are capable of accomplishing. They should wake up to their strengths and prove themselves,” he adds.
Working of the unit
Muruganantham has designed a small-scale sanitary napkin making unit that is available at Rs. 75,000, while the large-scale production unit costs Rs. 3.5 crore. The unit consists of a grinder-like machine that breaks down the cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine. The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour. The unit is capable of making 120 napkins per hour. The unit enables smaller entrepreneurs to adopt the business model and generate employment and income in rural areas.
A feature film on the social entrepreneur
Bangalore-based filmmaker Karanji Shreedhar, who has been following the social issue for close to a decade, has picked up Muruganandam's story for a feature film.
"Long back, I heard about a journalist who started Goonj, an NGO that came up with a cloth alternative to sanitary napkins. About eight years ago, I heard that a woman IPS officer from North India had taken up a similar cause -- installing a box with sanitary napkins in rural schools. I wanted to make a short film on her effort," he recounts. And as he browsed the Internet, researching for his film, he came across Muruganandam. He has been in touch with the social entrepreneur over the phone for about two years. Sreedhar had initially planned to partner with the government for the feature film. However, when the officials began focusing on profit, he backed off and decided to work on it alone. "Muruganandam himself doesn't want to make money out of his endeavour. Why should I?" he asks.