Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Free sanitary napkins – A scam in the making?

By P C Vinoj Kumar

Ever so quietly, the Indian Health ministry is making plans to help multinational sanitary napkin makers with a mega project that is expected to cost the government Rs. 2000 crores annually.

According to a report in The Hindu last Sunday, the government plans to supply about hundred free sanitary napkins to an estimated 200 million rural women annually to boost female health and hygiene in rural India. At the rate of Re one per napkin, the project cost is evaluated at Rs.2000 crores annually.

Many may not be aware that the lion’s share of the Indian sanitary napkin market is controlled by two MNCs, Procter and Gamble (makers of Whisper) and Johnson and Johnson (makers of Stayfree and Carefree). It is likely that the government may strike a deal with one of the two companies for the napkin project. A distant third player in this market is Kimberly Clark Lever, a joint venture between Kimberly Clark and Hindustan Lever Limited.

The government’s motives in mooting this project are questionable, especially at a time when Coimbatore based social entrepreneur A Muruganantham’s low cost sanitary napkin manufacturing machine is creating a quiet revolution in rural India.

Costing around Rs.1 lakh per unit, it is within the reach of rural women’s self-help groups, who avail of bank loans to buy the machine. The project is being implemented in about 200 places across India. In Maharashtra, the State government is associated with the project. Apart from providing employment to hundreds of rural women, it has brought hygiene to the doorsteps of rural households.

Tehelka reported his work in August last year. In November last year, Muruganantham received the National Innovation Foundation’s Fifth National Grassroots Technological Innovations and Traditional Knowledge Award from President Pratibha Patil.

A class ten dropout, Muruganantham developed the machine after nearly four years of painstaking research. It took him nearly two years to realise that the padding used in sanitary napkins was made of pine wood pulp and not ordinary cotton.

Reacting to the government’s proposed project, Muruganantham told this writer over phone from Coimbatore: “For half the cost of the annual expenditure of the proposed project (that is, Rs.1000 crores), it is possible to set up one lakh units of my machines all over the country. Mine is proven technology, and low cost at that. The napkins that are made from these machines are as good as any other available in the market,” he points out. In 2006, IIT (Madras) awarded him the first prize in a contest for innovating for betterment of society.

Muruganantham has refused to sell the patent for his machine and even turned down a blank cheque offer from a private company. “I want my technology to benefit people. I am working on the social-entrepreneurship model, selling the technology directly to the people and cutting costs,” he says.

The 47 year old inventor says that banks would be keen on giving loans to self-help groups for purchasing the machine if the government gives an undertaking that it would buy back the napkins from them.

“It could earmark Rs.2000 crores - the same amount it has proposed to spend on the project - for the buyback scheme. It doesn’t have to spend a single paisa on buying the machines. The banks will take care of that cost. If the government is willing to consider my proposal it can generate employment for one million women, while achieving its goal of promoting hygiene among rural women,” he says.

Will his voice be heard or would the government and the MNCs have their way? We need to wait and watch.

P C Vinoj Kumar is a journalist based in Chennai. A former reporter with Tehelka, he is currently involved in launching an online magazine.