First Account of the Man Who Inspired Twinkle Khanna To Make 'Padman'

In his quest to make this hygienic product affordable to all rural women, Arunachalam Muruganantham had started the second white revolution

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In his urge to come out with a low-cost sanitary napkin, Arunachalam Muruganantham, has become the first man to wear a sanitary napkin. In his quest to make this hygienic product affordable to all rural women, he has started the second white revolution.

Facebook: Arunachalam Muruganantham

Here’s the story of the man in his own words.

I was very young when I lost my father in an accident. I had to stop my studies and start working as I had two more mouths to feed.

After I got married, I saw my wife Shanti using rags during her periods. When I enquired about it, she curtly replied, “It’s none of your business.” When I explained to her w that how unhygienic it is to use rags, she told me,  If I and your sister start using sanitary napkins then we won’t be able buy milk.” It was a matter of awareness not affordability.  

This got me interested; I went to a medical shop to buy some sanitary napkins. As I was unaware of any brands, the shop-owner wrapped the packet inside a newspaper and handed it to me. What struck me the most was the fact that he was very conscious about it. And today, 19 years down the line, things are not very different even in the Tier-1 cities.  As I opened the pack, 8-10 pieces of sanitary napkins popped out which looked more like soft cotton wrapped inside a cloth. This was 1998, and 10gm of cotton cost 15p and these brands were selling each of the napkins for INR5. I thought of making low cost   sanitary pad for Shanti.

I bought some cotton and tried to replicate the existing prototype. I gave it to my wife to use it and asked for a feedback. Two weeks later, she told that the napkins are of no use.

 I was a little disheartened that though it looked better than a branded napkin but functionally it was not right. I was determined to put in more research and bought better quality cotton to make them. My only problem was that I needed more volunteers to test the napkins. I approached girls in the medical college but even they were too shy to speak about periods. All that was provided were single word answers like yes, no or ok. Next I thought of handing out feedback forms. But, I realised that girls aren’t being exactly honest and there was actually some problem with the product. I thought why not wear the sanitary pad myself.

 I made an artificial bladder and put blood inside it. But the blood got spoilt in 20 minutes and started emitting a foul smell and there were stains all over my clothes. My research went on for two weeks and I was not satisfied with the outcome. Another problem was people in my village started taking a notice. The fact that I was regularly meeting girls from the medical college did not go down well with my wife and her parents. Shanti left me and 15 days later, she sent me divorce notice. I thought of finishing my research quickly, not to hurt my mother’s sentiments this time.

Later, I made an agreement with the medical college girls that I would supply napkins to them and instead they would let me collect the used magazine. The girls agreed to it. I tied a handkerchief around my nose when I collect those and could not go near them before the next day when the smell comparatively subsided. But unfortunately my mother got to know what I was fiddling with and it infuriated her. Even she left. After two years, I came to the conclusion that problem was with the materials which I had used inside. The reason being even most ordinary cotton absorbs liquid but once the person using it closes her legs it would squeeze out. It took me another two-and-a-half- years to find that the MNCs were using barks from American pine tree to make it firm. It could not be decoded in a lab. Moreover, you need a multi-million dollar plant to process it. I spent another two-and-a-half years to make that machine.

Now with my small machines even uneducated women can make a world class sanitary pad. My machine, which I have managed to make in seven years time, has been awarded by IIT Madras. I received the President’s Award too. What I earn today is enough for sustaining my family. Now, I have supplied machines to Orrisa, Bihar, Sikkim and various parts of India.

In India, less than 5 per cent women use sanitary napkins. As per the data, the penetration level is only 2 per cent in rural areas and this is because big companies portray it as a luxury product. Today, it is a woman-to-woman model. We are able to reach out to the rural masses where women use sand, ash and leaves to keep away from bleeding. Today, I have set up 600 machines in 23 states of India. If our company changes that 2 per cent into 10, it will be a big achievement. The 2 per cent was achieved in 66 years. Even if we achieve this in 10 years, it is commendable. We are able to create rural employment out of this area only. It is a silent second white revolution but we do not want to make it a corporate entity.

As told to Punita Sabharwal in 2013