The inspiring tale of Padma Shri awardee Arunachalam Muruganantham is releasing as a film. For all those who don’t know, Arunachalam Muruganantham is known as the ‘Menstrual Man’ of India. He has been recognized and honoured in the country for his invention of a low-cost sanitary napkin-making machine, making lives easier for women.
The film Padman is produced by Twinkle Khanna, directed by R.Balki and stars Akshay Kumar. And here’s a throwback of our story featured in the December (2015) issue where Padma awardee Arunachalam Muruganantham talks about his humble beginnings and his journey towards becoming a social entrepreneur.
Coimbatore’s Arunachalam Muruganantham has a unique aim — to find a solution for those women in India who do not have access to sanitary napkins during their menstrual period. Muruganantham, listed among the Top 100 influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2014, started nurturing his idea of bringing out a low cost sanitary napkin 18 years ago. Until his wedding, he was actually unaware about those days in a woman’s life. It was only then that he started learning more about menstruation and realised the problems that women faced with regard to the availability of affordable sanitary napkins, and he became determined to redress this.
He first started testing his prototypes on his wife and sister, but being family members, and from a place where women do not discuss the difficulties they face during their periods, Muruganantham was unable to properly understand the drawbacks of his products. Once they denied him any help, he turned to medical college students, but even they would not give him proper feedback. Finally, he began experimenting on himself, using an artificial bladder filled with animal blood, in order to understand how a sanitary napkin works. He was immediately termed crazy, his wife and mother left him and he was also forced to leave his village.
Two and a half years of hard work followed, and ultimately, all it took him to figure out the raw material he needed was a hard board letter that he received — the board had cotton made out of pine trees. Once he had the raw materials, he needed to build a machine that would produce the napkins.
Muruganantham’s aim was to build a simple machine that could be used by anyone, especially to provide employment opportunities to women “Being the son of a handloom worker, I know the hardships that people face. If, in villages, women learn to make these napkins, there can be sustainable income,” he explains.
Four years later, he started rubbing shoulders with giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, the major manufacturers of sanitary napkins in the world. He has now installed more than 2300 machine across India. “My first installation was in Madhubani, near Nepal. Luckily, women, so far, have not questioned my intentions. They learn the process and do it on their own,” he says. Muruganantham has worked extensively in the BIMARU region and with tribals in many parts of India.
The machine that Muruganantham’s company, Jayashree Industries, makes is compact, and he follows a three-step process to make the napkins. The first step involves a home grinder-like setup that de-fiberises compressed cellulose. That is then moulded as a rectangular cake in the core-forming machine; finally, it is wrapped using polypropylene cloth. He provides these machines in rural areas and checks for the availability of raw materials before installing them. The napkins can be made according to the thickness required by each woman, and around 1500 napkins can be produced in a day.
Murugananthan has ambassadors in 17 countries and volunteers in India, who come down to Coimbatore to learn the process and take back machines with them to help women in their regions. Sowmya Sachidananda, from Mysore, started using the machine in 2013. “I came across an article that said that only 8 per cent of women in India use sanitary napkins. This intrigued me, and I wanted to bring about a change and became a volunteer for Muruganantham. I visited one of his units to learn the manufacturing process,” says Sowmya. Even after this effort, though, she only sees a minimal change. “Women are very conscious when it comes to purchasing napkins, but I have seen many opting for the ones we make,” she adds.
D Sumathi from Karur, in Tamil Nadu, also decided to install a machine in her city to help women. Interestingly, she was denied a machine by Muruganantham at first, as she did not fall under the category of women he wished to employ. Her persistence, however, made him change his mind. “It has been six years since we started using this machine, and we sell the products to many urban and rural areas under the name Breeze Sanitary Napkins,” she says.
Muruganantham is a regular visiting faculty at IITs, IIMs and various universities abroad, teaching students and industry workers about rural marketing. He also dreams of making India a country where 100 per cent of women have access to sanitary napkins; additionally, he wants to create 1 million jobs for women. Recently, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav expressed his desire to help Muruganantham accomplish his first dream. “We have now decided to make Uttar Pradesh a role model. It will take about 15 years to convert the state into a place where all women have access to sanitary napkins. We will set up training centers and teach the women how to use the machine,” he said.