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Critics called A. Muruganantham a "psycho" and "pervert." Who's laughing now?
Because of poverty and social stigmas surrounding menstruation, today, most Indian women use rags or even scraps of gunny sack instead of modern sanitary napkins — which are unavailable or too costly. For the government, this represents a public health crisis, raising the likelihood that millions of women will suffer reproductive tract infections or even cervical cancer. And for the big napkin makers, it represents a huge, untapped market that promises to keep the business growing for decades.
“Realizing the huge business potential of converting the homemade napkin users to branded napkins,” J&J launched its Stayfree Secure brand in India in 1997, and the low-cost product was the largest selling sanitary napkin in the Indian market within four years, according to the company's web site.
Riding on its Whisper brand, first launched here in 1989, P&G's feminine hygiene division notched growth of 26 percent last year, according to the company's annual report, generating sales of around $100 million.
The future lies in cracking the market comprising the urban and rural poor. Describing a partnership with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to teach rural women of Rajasthan about reproductive health — now set to be expanded in Muruganantham's home state of Tamil Nadu — P&G's annual report concludes, “Significantly, the program has been able to convert 85 percent of cloth users to sanitary pad users who used WHISPER.”
"P&G and Johnson and Johnson look at this issue merely in terms of sales turnover,” said PC Vinoj Kumar, a crusading journalist. “But as a social entrepreneur Muruganantham's business model has socio-economic objectives. It creates employment for thousands of rural women, apart from promoting use of sanitary napkins.”
One of the first to discover Muruganantham's invention, Kumar recently launched a Facebook campaign against the government's plan to subsidize sanitary napkins, which he suspects will be sourced from one of the three multinationals that control the world market. In March, one of his campaigners filed a Right to Information (RTI) request seeking “copies of all files related to this scheme right from the initiation of the scheme, to any consultations held with any external agencies, the basis on which the scheme was announced and any other relevant details.”
But according to Kumar, the government's reply simply stated the obvious: “This is to inform you that currently the Ministry, Health & Family Welfare does not have a scheme to provide free sanitary napkins for women living below poverty line. Further, discussions for formulation of the same as well as an assessment of various modalities is taking place in the ministry, after which, the scheme would be proposed.”
In case you're not fluent in the lingo, that's bureaucratese for buzz off: The ministry provided none of the files related to the plan or any other details requested under India's RTI law. Now Kumar plans a letter-writing campaign to approach the president, the prime minister, the health minister and the finance minister and ask them to consider Muruganantham's proposal before finalizing the free sanitary napkin scheme.
Meanwhile, Murugantham's not standing still.
His napkin machines are already in place in more than 200 locations across India, where they are empowering local women, and taking the stigma away from menstruation and feminine hygiene by turning it into a lucrative trade. Though many have flourished, some self-help groups have floundered without management expertise — raising doubts whether a legion of grassroots organizations could truly handle the mammoth job of supplying sanitary napkins to the country. But Murugantham argues that if the government supports him instead of P&G or J&J, his machines cannot only solve India's feminine hygiene crisis but also provide employment for a million women.
That's radical thinking from the bottom of the pyramid. The question is: Will the government squash it and make a mockery of the much ballyhooed “decade of innovation?”