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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 34, Dated August 29, 2009

The Pad That Does Not Whisper

A school dropout invents a sanitary napkin machine that is changing the lives of thousands of women across India. PC VINOJ KUMAR reports

SISTERS VIJAYA and Latha in the Coimbatore city of Tamil Nadu were earning paltry salaries in private jobs. Last November, they pooled in Rs 85,000 and bought a local inventor’s machine that manufactures sanitary napkins.

“We read of it in a Tamil magazine and decided to plunge into the business,” says Latha. Today, they earn Rs 5,000 a month selling the napkins that have become a hit with women in the city and the countryside. Selling under the brand name ‘Touch Free’, the sisters produce 8,000 packets a month. Each pack contains eight sanitary napkins. Women in their area purchase directly from them, while salesgirls sell the napkins at homes, offices and colleges.

Each machine makes 120 napkins an hour. The invention caters to 2.5 lakh women in India

Not far from their home, retired school teacher Rajeswari has set up her own unit, too. “These napkins are thicker than those sold in the shops,” she says. “They are specially designed for rural women who work in the fields, as one pad can last a whole day.”

This low-cost sanitary napkin manufacturing machine is the invention of 47- year-old A Muruganantham, a Class 10 dropout who is now making waves across India. With its capacity to produce 120 napkins per hour, such machines are now catering to at least 2.5 lakh women and girls. Already, some 100 machines have been installed across India, 29 of them in Haryana alone. Entrepreneurs in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Uttarakhand, too, have set up units after buying the machines from Muruganantham.

A school of his own Muruganthamís machine is taking sanitary pads to newer consumers
Care free The machine has improved sanitation and is spurring rural women into entrepreneurship

In Uttarakhand, a government company, the Uttarakhand Parvatiya Aajeevika Sanvardhan, has begun a project using this machine at a village in the Tehri district. Many women and girls there have started using sanitary napkins for the first time. “It has helped upgrade the hygiene of the rural women,” says Vinita Negi, an executive with the venture. As a micro-enterprise, it has also provided employment to eight women. Across Uttarakhand, some 12 machines have been installed.

Despite his invention’s huge success, Muruganantham refuses to sell the patent for his machine and turned down a blank cheque from a private company. He says he wants to use his invention for promoting hygiene among rural and urban poor women. In rural India, Muruganantham claims, most women use a cloth contraption as a sanitary pad, which is unhygienic and a known cause for bringing on diseases such as cervical cancer.

Muruganantham now lectures at business schools. He has won an award from IIT Madras

In 2006, IIT (Madras) awarded the first prize to Muruganantham in a contest for innovating for betterment of society. He often lectures at business schools. Last year, he spoke at a meeting of innovators from across the country held at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

Muruganantham’s family struggled to make ends meet after his father passed away. For some years he worked in a welding shop as a helper. Later, he set up a small steel fabrication workshop in Coimbatore. He invented the sanitary napkin machine after nearly four years of painstaking research. It took him almost two years to realise that the padding used in sanitary napkins was made of pine wood pulp and not ordinary cotton.

“My family thought I had gone mad when I began my experiments,” he says. Initially, he distributed the napkins for free, and collected them after use to see if they worked.

“My mother left me. My sisters started avoiding me.” But now, everyone is proud of Muruganantham’s success.

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 34, Dated August 29, 2009

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