Shanti, a resident of the congested Kotla Mubarakpur village in South Delhi, has been evangelising the cause in her neighbourhood. A stone’s throw away, her employer, Dr Deepali Bhardwaj, a dermatologist who counts politicians and celebrities among her patients, preaches the message at her clinic in the posh Defence Colony. Just across the border, in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, schoolboy Vikram Masih (name changed), 16, does the same, going so far as to have a conversation with a burqa-clad woman. In Sultanpur, nearly 700 km to the east, Pratibha Singh and her band of women have been doing the same among the poor, helping them see the light. The message is always the same: salvation is at hand.

Shanti, Deepali, Vikram and Pratibha aren’t trying to convert anyone to a different religion. What they’re evangelising is something temporal. They are getting people — both men and women — to understand menstrual hygiene and talk about it, something unthinkable a few years ago. These conversations aren’t taking place just in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh but across the length and breadth of the country, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Lakshadweep to the Andaman Islands.

The credit for much of this goes to one man: Muruganantham Arunachalam. He set out to create a low-cost sanitary pad, and succeeded. He then made it his mission to ensure every Indian woman has access to sanitary pads during her periods. While that goal will take longer to accomplish, he has made considerable progress, transforming the lives of thousands of women across India along the way.

Indeed, his work has gone well beyond India, to many other countries. Thanks to his efforts and the visible difference he has made, Muruganantham has been chosen BusinessLine’s Iconic Changemaker this year.

“Two decades ago, a wife never talked to her husband about menstruation. A daughter never talked to her mother. No father or grandfather could imagine talking about this subject to their daughter or grand-daughter. Now, thanks to awareness, this is changing in all of India,” says Muruganantham.

“Corporates have been manufacturing sanitary pads in India for decades, but only a small percentage of women were using them. That has changed in the last 20 years,” he says.

There definitely has been a change, thanks to the efforts of Muruganantham and others. A study by the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development in 2007 among adolescent girls found just 23.8 per cent using sanitary pads. In 2012, when the study was repeated, 74 per cent said they were using sanitary pads. Usage by mothers of adolescent girls had shot up from 7.8 per cent to 56.2 per cent.

Starting from rags

Muruganantham, 57, began his quest to create a low-cost sanitary pad in 1998, when he realised that his wife was using and reusing rags during her menstrual cycle. She knew about sanitary pads but didn’t buy them because they were expensive.

That was all it took for Muruganantham, who had been working as a welder, having given up his studies after Class Ten to support the family when his father died, to embark on his journey. All else ceased to exist as he set out to create a low-cost sanitary pad.

Soon, people were calling him a madman. And a pervert — they couldn’t understand his obsession with women’s menstrual hygiene. His wife, family and village rejected him and his whole world collapsed. But still he kept going.

He sold everything he owned, borrowed money and worked part-time to fund his efforts. Eventually, in 2005, he succeeded, won recognition around the world, and came be known as Padman, thanks to a film starring Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar.

The pad-making apparatus

Describing his invention, Muruganantham says: “It is the world’s first customised sanitary pad making machine. It is designed to be used even by uneducated people.” The pad-making apparatus consists of mini machines that de-fibrate the wood fibre into cotton, press it into shape in a mould, and sterilise the pads under ultraviolet light. Thereafter, they are packaged for sale. A single unit can produce 1,500 pads in a day.

Manufacturing of these machines is outsourced to various units in Coimbatore. The parts are then assembled at Muruganantham’s modest workshop by a small band of workers. The cost of the pad-making machines varies according to the requirement. “It can start from ₹65,000 and go up,” says Muruganantham.

In India, these machines have been installed in 27 States and Union Territories. The equipment has a life-span of 20-25 years, says Muruganantham. To underline how hardy it is, he cited an example from Nepal, where one of the pad-making units was buried under rubble during the earthquake of 2015. It was dug out and found to be working just fine, he says.

In all, says Muruganantham, Jayaashree Industries, his Coimbatore-based company, has supplied 5,000 units over the last 15 years. The invention has gone well beyond India, to 27 countries, many in Asia and Africa, and even some developed ones. A few units have been set up in countries such as the US and Germany, he says, because the pads are made without any chemicals and in demand from women with sensitive skin.

Popular with users

Indeed, perhaps the greatest endorsement Muruganantham’s work has received is from a doctor. Dr Deepali Bhardwaj, the dermatologist practising in Delhi’s Defence Colony, says the sanitary pads made using Muruganantham’s equipment are of the highest quality. She uses the pads herself, and encourages women patients who consult her to do the same. “The pads are made of natural materials. Unlike established brands, which use polymers, they do not cause any irritation,” she explains.

Deepanjan Charitable Trust, run by Dr Bhardwaj with her family and friends, has installed the pad-making machines in Delhi and Dehradun. The women workers, one of whom is Shanti from Kotla Mubarakpur, get a free pack every month and also help in menstrual hygiene outreach programmes. “Had it not been for the free pack, I may not have used sanitary pads. I cannot afford to buy the ones available in the market,” says Shanti.

“The cost of production, including sterilising and packaging, is around ₹2.10 for a regular-sized pad,” says Dr Bhardwaj. A similar, regular-sized pad made by multinationals can cost consumers as much as ₹12. Ultra-thin versions, with superior retention, are priced far higher. Muruganantham’s pads are also biodegradable. “They can be buried in the ground after use,” he says.

Creating livelihoods

Despite his success and worldwide recognition, Muruganantham remains humble. While he is an entrepreneur, he has never tried to reap huge commercial gains from his creation, despite many tempting offers. “I’m not doing things for free. I’m a social entrepreneur. So, I’m making a need-based profit,” he says.

Rather than make the low-cost pads and supply the entire country, he has focussed on the grassroots, selling the pad-making machines to women’s self-help groups and NGOs. “I’m like a butterfly, flitting about, pollinating,” he says, explaining his approach. “We have done complete technology transfer to the women. They operate independently, without needing any support from me or anyone else. Because of this, we have been able to create an estimated 115,000 livelihoods,” he says.

Pratibha Singh, Founder and Director of Kshitij Educational and Rural Development, in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, has helped create many of those livelihoods with Muruganantham’s invention. The NGO ordered its first set of machines from Jayaashree Industries in 2015 and trained women from the village to make pads. The 10 women at the unit make about 800 pads a day, and earn ₹3,000-5,000 a month. A second unit, funded as a CSR initiative by Hero Cycles, was purchased in 2019 as demand grew.

The pads are sold through women mobilisers from Self Help Groups. In Sultanpur, the pads are sold to the mobilisers for ₹2 apiece, below the production cost and, they, in turn, sell them for ₹2.50-3.00 apiece. The lives of the women working in the pad-producing units have been transformed. Unemployed earlier, they all have bank accounts today, and decide how to spend their earnings. “They have become campaigners for menstrual hygiene and are at ease addressing groups of men and women,” says Pratibha.

It isn’t just women from economically backward regions that are making sanitary pads using Muruganantham’s machines. “Indian Army jawans in Ladakh are making sanitary pads and providing them to women there; prisoners in Tihar Jail and a jail in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, are also making the pads,” he says.

Even students at the elite Lotus Valley School in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, including Vikram Masih, have been making the pads, thanks to the efforts of Anjli Bawa, a teacher, who has been driving the school’s community outreach initiatives. Around 65 boys and girls make the pads as part of an interact club sponsored by the Rotary Club. The students are actively involved in distribution.

Full circle

Since being ostracised by his family and village 20 years ago, Muruganantham has come a long way. He bears no ill-feelings and has reconciled with everyone. Wife Shanti, 47, and he have a daughter, Preetisri, who is 12 today. “In the beginning we faced a lot of difficulty in our marriage and in the village because of his work. But now, all that is in the past. People in the village want to take selfies with him,” says the shy Shanti. Today Class 12 textbooks in Tamil Nadu feature his story.

The success that followed his years of struggle has won him recognition far and wide. He was on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014. In 2016, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri.

Muruganantham can take pride in his simple machine, which has turned the tide for hundreds of thousands of women across India, helping them lead healthy, productive lives. He has ensured they can attend school and continue to work through their periods. He is helping them earn a living making pads and selling them. And most of all, he is breaking the taboos around menstruation, a subject even educated people were too embarrassed to talk about until now.