Coimbatore-based social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham biopic Padman, starring Akshay Kumar, is all set to hit the silver screens in 2018 on Republic Day. The pioneer of low-cost sanitary napkins in remote areas was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016. He is also a known face in TEDx talks and a renowned guest lecturer at IITs and IIMs, mentoring the youth on innovation, entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
Anurag Singh Bohra spoke to Muruganantham over phone. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you get the idea of devising a low-cost machine to manufacture sanitary pads in your village?
The idea came from my wife since in our village women cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. When I asked my wife she told me we would have to cut down half of our milk budget to buy sanitary pads. Moreover, while raw materials for sanitary pads cost 10 paise, the end product was sold for 40 times that price. So, I decided to create it on my own. Initially, I asked my wife and sisters to volunteer for me but they refused as menstruation is still considered a taboo in our culture. Women in our country’s rural areas use filthy rags and newspapers during their periods. Therefore, I decided to wear a sanitary pad myself for a week. I experienced the period menstruation as I attached the pad to a bladder with animal blood. I did it for my wife and the women in our community who have to suffer the unhygienic stage due to social taboos and non-affordability. Later, I also distributed my products free of cost to women students at a medical college. This creation is a part of my own personal journey for the females in my family and community in order to provide them with a hygienic and healthy life during periods.
From where did you source the raw materials for your innovation?
It was a very long and tiresome process. After a two-and-a-half years long research I found out that the commercial pads used cellulose fibres derived from pine bark and wood pulp. I contacted many companies who could help me with my innovation. I contacted a US-based company called Universal Paper and lied to them that I was a rich man. Somehow, after knowing about my vision, they got interested in partnering with me.
In 2006, you visited IIT Madras where you won the prestigious National Innovation Foundation’s Grassroots Technological Innovation Award. What made you execute your vision at one of the leading innovation institutions?
That was something unexpected. Someone suggested me to try my luck at IIT-Madras. I was initially reluctant to go there. But when I went there and presented my idea to them they liked it. So, there was no planning involved. It just somehow happened.
In 2016, you were awarded the Padma Shri by former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. How was the experience?
It was a wonderful experience. It’s a great honour for me. The President applauded me for my work. It was very encouraging for me.
You have given guest lectures at IIMs and IITs. How do you see the prospects for today’s youth in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship?
There are two kinds of students. Those who study and work to survive, while others who want to be achievers. Most of the students whom I have lectured were inquisitive to learn and contribute towards my vision. So, the youth who want to achieve in life can do a lot for society.
What was your reaction after watching the Padman trailer?
I am very happy. It’s a very nice feeling. For the very first time a film is being made on my life. It is a proud moment for our community.
Your organisation runs as non-profit by partnering with SHGs (Self-Help-Groups). After achieving success in your venture, didn’t the idea of monetising ever occur to you?
My product is targeted towards rural women. I don’t have any plans to make money for myself. All I wish to do is empower rural women in our country. I shall continue working with SHGs in order to provide low-cost sanitary pads to the women in remote areas and villages.
How do you foresee the implementation of GST on sanitary napkins on the sanitation and hygiene prospects of tribal and rural women in our country?
The fact that the idea is now being debated by the media and youth creates optimism. Earlier people were shy to even discuss such issues. Now a dialogue has been initiated. The media will play an effective role. It is going to benefit the rural women in the long-run.