CHENNAI: When they were first asked if they’d like to manufacture pads (sanitary napkins, if you please), most of the lifers at the Central Prison at Puzhal looked away, embarrassed. They wouldn’t even call them pads, but refer to them only as ‘ladies samacharam (items)’.
Cut to one year later, and the Association Block I, where the napkin making unit is housed, is almost a happy place.
As we make our way down the corridor to the large room, all of them look up at us. Visitors are rare, after all. As their eyes follow us around, their hands don’t quite stop what they’re doing - almost mechanically, they press the cotton, fold, iron and wrap, passing it along the workbench, till a finished sanitary napkin is slid into its case. At the end of the week, these are carted to the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology to be used by the women patients there.
“There were two things that worked for us with this project to get them over that embarrassment to make pads,” explains the Prison’s Assistant Superintendent V Rukmani Priyadarshini. “First, it was easy work and second, one of the prisoners, Pudhuraja, was a Government Health Inspector before he was convicted.
He really told them all about how these pads were going to help women like their wives, sisters and daughters to stay healthy after they had given birth. That really did it,” she says with a smile.
Pudhuraja is a thin, marginally tall man with a straightforward smile. “I’ve seen what infection can do to new mothers, especially in the small PHCs in the South. Each one of these is saving lives every day,” he says as he picks up a pad. Convicted for murdering his wife, a crime he denies vehemently, Pudhuraja has led a team of three to all the other prisons as they are the ‘master trainers’ of the pad trade, as far as jail circles go.
Initiated by the CSR wing of HCL Technologies, the project began in Puzhal and has branched out to prisons across the State with tumultuous results. “Every time somebody talks about making a difference in a prison, the only thing they talk about is Tihar,” says Srimathi Shivashankar, AVP, Diversity and Sustainability, HCL Technologies. “We wanted it to be Puzhal,” she states simply.
After chugging along with 20 inmates making a few hundred pads a day, the interest in it skyrocketed when they realised that the returns were great. “Like most other prison jobs, the money is deposited in their account. For each pad they make, they’re paid 30 paise. So, the more they make, the better for their families,” she adds.
Today, Puzhal alone has two units, working two shifts every day, producing a whopping 9,000 pads. Initially, they supplied the equipment and the wood pulp from Gujarat, but after four months, the prisoners are making enough to buy their own materials. “Now that’s what I call sustainability,” she says happily.
But this is just the beginning. In fact, they’ve been silently experimenting during the breaks with ‘wing-crimping’ machines and they’re ready for the final frontier - making commercial sanitary napkins that normal women can use. “
The uses for these napkins are much more and we can sell in the open market under our Freedom brand,” explains Priyadarshini. Her initial idea, one that her band of napkin-makers have agreed on, is to set up kiosks in government schools where girls can pick up the pad at an extremely subsidised cost. And if that works, “Then we will go all out,” she says.
As we leave them to their quiet, but efficient work, we ask her if making napkins has had an impact on the lifers — amongst their peers. It’s not the most ‘manly’ job within those tall walls, after all. “They’re doing all right,” she says delicately, but follows it up with, “I walked out of the prison a few weeks ago and a woman suddenly ran up to me and fell at my feet. She was weeping. When she calmed down, she told me that in the 15 years that she had been married to her husband, the first time that he had ever contributed money to the family was after he began working here. They have begun to think of the women they’ve left back home, because of the work they do. That’s the difference.”