We all have seen the trailer for the movie Pad man staring Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor. But has it ever occurred to you on whose life is the movie based?
Well, that man is Arunachalam Muruganantham, he is the inventor of the low-cost sanitary pad making machine and is credited for innovating grassroots mechanisms for generating awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India.
He is the first man in the world to wear a sanitary pad and experience the discomfort women go through for five straight days every month-barring the physical pain, of course. He is also the first man in India to acknowledge his wife’s menstrual problems as his own.
Born in 1962 to a couple who were handloom weavers in Coimbatore, India. He grew up in poverty after his father died in a road accident. His mother worked as a farm laborer to help in his studies, however, at the age of 14 he dropped out of school and took up odd jobs to support his family.
In 1998, he married Shanthi. Shortly after marriage, he discovered his wife collecting filthy rags and newspapers to use during her menstrual cycle, as sanitary napkins made by multinational corporations were expensive.Troubled by this, he started designing experimental pads.Initially, he made pads out of cotton, but these were rejected by his wife and sisters.
Eventually, they stopped cooperating with him and refused to be the test subjects for his innovations. To bring him back to his senses his wife separated from him and sent him a divorce notice so that he would stop making the sanitary pads, but he continued to work in secret. He realized that the raw materials cost 10 paise ($0.002), but the end product is sold for 40 times that price. He looked for female volunteers who could test his inventions, but most were too shy to discuss their menstrual issues with him.
He started testing it on himself, using a bladder with animal blood but became the subject of ridicule when the “sanitary pad” was discovered in his village. As menstruation is a taboo subject in India, it left him ostracized by his community and family. He distributed his products free to girls in a local medical college, provided they returned them to him after use.
It took him two years to discover that the commercial pads used cellulose fibers derived from the pine bark wood pulp.The fibers helped the pads absorb while retaining shape.Imported machines that made the pads cost INR 35 million.So, he devised a low-cost machine that could be operated with minimal training.He sourced the processed pine wood pulp from a supplier in Mumbai and the machines would grind, de-fibrate, press and sterilize the pads under ultraviolet before packaging them for sale. The machine costing INR 65,000 only.
In 2006, he visited IIT Madras to show his idea and received suggestions. They registered his invention for the National Innovation Foundation Grassroots Technological Innovations Award and his idea won the award. He obtained seed funding and founded Jayaashree Industries, which now markets these machines to rural women across India.
His commitment to social aid has earned him several awards.Despite offers to commercialize his venture, he continues to provide these machines to self-help groups (SHGs) run by women. The working of the machine involves few simple steps. First defibering the core material which is wood pulp. Then forming the core of the napkin, followed by finishing the cover. The last step involves UV sterilization of the pads and then packing them. All these steps can be learned in an hour.
Muruganantham’s invention is widely praised as a key step in changing women’s lives in India. His machine has created jobs and income for many women, and affordable pads enable many more women to earn their livelihood during menstruation. In addition to his own outreach, Muruganantham’s work has also inspired many other entrepreneurs to enter this area. On a happy note, Muruganantham has been reunited with his family who help him in his noble cause.In 2014, he was one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People in the World. In 2016, he was awarded the Padma Shri.
He has given lectures at many institutions including IIT Bombay IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore and Harvard. He has also given a TED talk. His story was the subject of a prize-winning documentary by Amit Virmani, Menstrual Man.
In a country where talking about periods is considered a taboo even in the 21st century, it takes a lot of courage and strength especially for a man to go all out of his way and break the taboos around the menstruation. More power and strength to him to continue his work and break the barriers around menstruation.