Monday, May 24, 2010

meet india's tampon king

(Note: Article refers to sanitary napkins, not tampons, as the editors' headline suggests)

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
May 20, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Not long ago, women in the small south Indian town of Coimbatore were convinced that 47-year-old A. Muruganantham was some kind of pervert.

After a failed attempt with his wife and sisters and a cockeyed do-it-yourself effort with a football bladder full of goat's blood, he'd finally hit upon a surefire way to test the low-cost sanitary napkin he was developing for India's poor. He was passing out free pads to college girls and collecting their used napkins for study. And he had a storeroom full of them. When his mother saw it, she burst into tears and packed her things to move in with his sister.

“Everybody claimed I am a psycho, [that] I am using this as a trump card to get close to girls,” said Murugantham, who taught himself English in the course of his research — partly to get past the telephone answering systems he encountered when he called U.S. suppliers. “Before going across that automatic, it will cost 300 and 400 rupees. The moment the operator starts speaking, it will cost 300 and 400 rupees. Then the person will speak in slang English, 'OK,' because this is a material that is only used by big companies.”

Nobody thinks he's a psycho anymore.

In 2006, Muruganantham, a high school dropout, perfected a machine for making low-cost sanitary napkins against all odds. Along the way he'd taught himself English, recruited local college professors to help him draft letters and surf the web for suppliers, worn panties (not to mention a sanitary pad and a football bladder full of blood), and spent many times the cost of his TVS Motors moped on laboratory analyses. He even invented an alter ego to get past the gatekeepers at the U.S. firms that supplied the pine wood-based cellulose — not cotton — that he discovered was the raw material he needed.

“The moment they hear that somebody is calling from some remote place, in India, they will ask, 'Who are you?' So I said I am a millionaire in Coimbatore. We are going to start the napkin company, so we want raw materials,” said Muruganantham.

Eventually, he triumphed. Capable of producing around 120 pads per hour, the machine Murugantham developed costs only about $2,500 — a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Procter & Gamble (P&G) spend on their plants. And while output of 120 pads an hour hardly offers much in the way of economies of scale, Muruganantham's invention has created its own business model for small “self help groups” of low-income women — creating jobs that earn them twice what they made as ordinary laborers.

“It is an innovative way of addressing the issue of female hygiene and is accessing a market that the Kotex product made by Kimberly-Clark currently does not access,” said a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark.

But even as Muruganantham has intrigued multinationals, earned accolades from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) and the National Innovation Foundation and inked a deal with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to supply his machines to women's self-help groups in Africa, a controversial Indian government scheme threatens to squash his grassroots movement.

According to local newspaper reports, the government is finalizing plans to supply free and “highly subsidized” sanitary napkins to India's poor. The program is being designed to cover 200 million rural women, using 100 sanitary napkins each per year, at an estimated cost of around $450 million. No details are available yet regarding the supplier, but in India, as in the rest of the world, virtually the only major manufacturers of sanitary napkins are multinationals P&G, J&J and Kimberly-Clark.

“This is a 'first of kind' program where public-private partnership is being explored to bring high quality products to rural poor at affordable rates,” said the Kimberly-Clark spokesman. “The proposed model would envisage a complete reworking of the value chain to drive costs down. The intent is for the project to be self sustainable over a period of time. The Indian government is in talks with all the major sanitary napkin manufacturers — and nothing is finalized as yet.”

Muruganantham doesn't see it that way.

“What I am telling is that if the government permits me we are able without subsidy to provide the napkins,” Murugantham said. “Already, we can make napkins for 1 rupee, 50 paise. If the government comes, we can reduce that by 50 percent.”

And if the government guarantees orders from rural women, the scheme won't cost the state a penny, Murugantham believes. With orders in hand, the women will be able to get small-business loans from local banks, enabling local entrepreneurs to set up 100,000 manufacturing units across India.

But can a grassroots invention really compete with some of the world's largest multinational companies?

Because of poverty and social stigmas surrounding menstruation, today, most Indian women use rags or even scraps of gunny sack instead of modern sanitary napkins — which are unavailable or too costly. For the government, this represents a public health crisis, raising the likelihood that millions of women will suffer reproductive tract infections or even cervical cancer. And for the big napkin makers, it represents a huge, untapped market that promises to keep the business growing for decades.

“Realizing the huge business potential of converting the homemade napkin users to branded napkins,” J&J launched its Stayfree Secure brand in India in 1997, and the low-cost product was the largest selling sanitary napkin in the Indian market within four years, according to the company's web site.

Riding on its Whisper brand, first launched here in 1989, P&G's feminine hygiene division notched growth of 26 percent last year, according to the company's annual report, generating sales of around $100 million.

The future lies in cracking the market comprising the urban and rural poor. Describing a partnership with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to teach rural women of Rajasthan about reproductive health — now set to be expanded in Muruganantham's home state of Tamil Nadu — P&G's annual report concludes, “Significantly, the program has been able to convert 85 percent of cloth users to sanitary pad users who used WHISPER.”

"P&G and Johnson and Johnson look at this issue merely in terms of sales turnover,” said PC Vinoj Kumar, a crusading journalist. “But as a social entrepreneur Muruganantham's business model has socio-economic objectives. It creates employment for thousands of rural women, apart from promoting use of sanitary napkins.”

One of the first to discover Muruganantham's invention, Kumar recently launched a Facebook campaign against the government's plan to subsidize sanitary napkins, which he suspects will be sourced from one of the three multinationals that control the world market. In March, one of his campaigners filed a Right to Information (RTI) request seeking “copies of all files related to this scheme right from the initiation of the scheme, to any consultations held with any external agencies, the basis on which the scheme was announced and any other relevant details.”

But according to Kumar, the government's reply simply stated the obvious: “This is to inform you that currently the Ministry, Health & Family Welfare does not have a scheme to provide free sanitary napkins for women living below poverty line. Further, discussions for formulation of the same as well as an assessment of various modalities is taking place in the ministry, after which, the scheme would be proposed.”

In case you're not fluent in the lingo, that's bureaucratese for buzz off: The ministry provided none of the files related to the plan or any other details requested under India's RTI law. Now Kumar plans a letter-writing campaign to approach the president, the prime minister, the health minister and the finance minister and ask them to consider Muruganantham's proposal before finalizing the free sanitary napkin scheme.

Meanwhile, Murugantham's not standing still.

His napkin machines are already in place in more than 200 locations across India, where they are empowering local women, and taking the stigma away from menstruation and feminine hygiene by turning it into a lucrative trade. Though many have flourished, some self-help groups have floundered without management expertise — raising doubts whether a legion of grassroots organizations could truly handle the mammoth job of supplying sanitary napkins to the country. But Murugantham argues that if the government supports him instead of P&G or J&J, his machines cannot only solve India's feminine hygiene crisis but also provide employment for a million women.
That's radical thinking from the bottom of the pyramid. The question is: Will the government squash it and make a mockery of the much ballyhooed “decade of innovation?”

Source URL:

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

GlobalPost: Incest, or star-crossed love?

A north Indian caste wants laws changed to match honor-killing codes.
By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
May 5, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — When a Haryana court handed down the death sentence to five family members this spring for murdering a young couple who'd married in violation of an arcane incest taboo, women's rights activists hailed the decision as a landmark judgment.

But now a new challenge from the village councils that order such killings threatens to bring more violence.

“They say those who marry despite blood and milk ties will be killed,” said Jagmati Sangwan, an activist with the local chapter of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA).

Following the capital sentence awarded March 30 to the five family members who hacked 23-year-old Manoj and 19-year-old Babli to death on the orders of the local khap panchayat, or caste council, groups of defiant leaders from similar councils across Haryana have rallied to protest. Members of the dominant Jat caste of agrarian land owners, they called for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to put it in accordance with their beliefs on incest.

The general population has little sympathy for the Jat cause, even though there are already separate sets of laws for marriage among Hindus, Muslims and Christians — some of which, like the provision for polygamy in the Muslim code, are often criticized as anti-women.

So there's little chance that the legislature will entertain Jat's call for a constitutional amendment. But in a country already divided on caste, religious and regional lines, the dispute threatens to throw gunpowder straight into one of the flash points of conflict over the modernization of India.

“If you look at both the khap panchayat violence and the intercaste violence, I think they're reaching a peak,” said Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi).

The drive appears to be gathering momentum. On April 13, a group claiming to represent 36 khap panchayats from across Haryana, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Delhi met in the city of Kurukshetra, where they pledged support to the men sentenced to death for murdering Manoj and Babli.

They promised to collect 10 rupees (about 25 U.S. cents) from every family in Haryana to pay for top lawyers for the death row inmates, vowed to block roads and highways with demonstrations, and threatened to surround the parliament and Haryana state assembly if action was not taken to amend the marriage act. A week later, a similar group met in Haryana's Jind district to serve an ultimatum to the state's parliamentarians and assemblymen: Introduce a bill in support of our call for a ban on marriages we deem to be incestuous, or face statewide protests.

Then, on May 2, Sarvjatiya Sarvkhap Maha Panchayat, an umbrella body of khap panchayats, decided to surround the residence of local member of parliament Naveen Jindal to force him to support their cause, even as former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala on Monday backed the demand of khap panchayats to ban same gotra marriages — suggesting that the proposed change to the Hindu Marriage Act could become a compelling issue for state polls.

“It's very funny that the [marriage] law was passed in 1955, and they are now demanding a change,” said sociologist Prem Chowdhry, author of a seminal book on honor killings in Haryana. “Obviously, all these years they have gotten away with murder, and the state and the judiciary have not been able to do anything. For once the judiciary acts, and they cannot take it: they want to change the law itself.”

For the Jat caste of rural north India, the rapid social changes that have accompanied India's economic rise represent a terrifying threat to their traditional dominance. Political reforms have introduced democratically elected councils to replace the traditional leaders — reserving places for women at the helm. Job and education quotas for lower castes have helped young people from erstwhile untouchable castes to earn more money than their onetime betters. The supremacy associated with owning farmland is fast being eroded by industrialization and urbanization. And by fighting to prevent women from marrying better educated partners instead of ignorant ones from clans with traditionally higher status, the khaps are fighting a rearguard action to preserve the static value system that for centuries has prevented upward mobility by tying status to land.

“Many of these marriages have been regular arranged marriages. The parents know they are violating these gotra [clan] rules, but they're doing it because there is obviously a shift in Indian society from [valuing] land to education and employment of a different kind,” explained Kaur. “The khaps want land to remain the basis of social negotiations and social rankings.”

The backlash can be violent.

In states like Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, AIDWA estimates that was many as 10 percent of all murders are so-called “honor killings,” in which families execute young men and women for violating the marriage rules set down by these khap panchayats. Screamer headlines like, “DAD KILLS PREGNANT DAUGHTER AND LOVER,” have grown commonplace in the vernacular press.

But the blood runs for other reasons, too.

In typical incidents this month, five people, including two children, supposedly jumped under the wheels of a speeding train because the local council had ordered the man to pay a fine tantamount to a year's wages as punishment for an extramarital affair. And a few hundred kilometers away, a father and daughter from one of the Dalit castes once considered untouchable were allegedly burned alive — along with 25 empty huts — following an argument between a Dalit and a Jat who threw stones at his dog.

“They are trying to make their presence felt in a context where they are increasingly becoming irrelevant,” said Surindher Jodhka, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Basically the patriarchal caste elders do not have much authority in the village, but within their community the patriarchy wants to exert its will by controlling the sexuality of their women.”

At least some of the khaps' problems may be self-created. According to sociologists, the khaps comprise rich landowners who use their power to suppress women, Dalits and the poor. But in perpetuating and reinforcing cultural obsessions with masculinity and the purity of their blood, the unsanctioned councils are virtually compelling the younger generation to rebel. Thanks to the skewed sex ratio stemming from female feticide, marriageable women are few and far between.

But the khaps' blind allegiance to ancient incest taboos makes marriage nearly impossible. Under traditional law, it is forbidden to marry someone from the same village on the theory that somewhere in the forgotten past you might have a common ancestor; it's forbidden to marry anyone from the same gotra, or clan; and it's forbidden to marry anyone from neighboring villages with whom your mob has formed a brotherhood pact, called bhaichara. In today's more mobile society, that makes getting married almost impossible. As many as a fourth of the region's men remain bachelors. Some go as far afield as Kerala, in India's deep south, to import short-term, child-bearing brides. Others risk death to defy an incest taboo they see as outdated.

And now India's courts have begun to protect them.

Source URL: