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Stree Swabhiman initiative's manual machine-spun pads could herald a sanitary napkin revolution in India

"Gandhi ji chakha chala kar kapda banate they, hum charkha chala kar kapda hata denge. Charkha wohi hai," says Sudha.

She's alluding to the fact that just as Mahatma Gandhi empowered a people by showing the way to weave one’s own cloth (thus countering British imports), women like her are spinning the charkha-esque wheel atop a manual machine to create sanitary napkins so that hundreds of women can give up the use of unsanitary cloth during menstruation. It is only enterprise that uplifts and Sudha, a resident of Dhanauri Kalan off Noida on the Yamuna Expressway, wonders where this spirit of enterprise was all these years. Every single day, along with four others, she spins a metal wheel attached to a long machine to cut sheets of non-woven fabric into the oblong shape of sanitary napkins. Up until some years ago, she used her brother’s t-shirts and worn out curtains to soak up menstrual blood. Today, in front of the same men she shied away from, Sudha narrates a story of a sense of misplaced shame that shrouded her life during that time of the month.

In January, just before the release of Padman, a movie on the one-man-sanitary-napkin-revolution, the Union Information Technology, and Electronics Ministry launched the Stree Swabhiman initiative. Under this initiative, the Common Service Centres (CSCs) now have sanitary pad manufacturing units. Dhanauri Kalan is one such village, where the sanitary napkin manufacturing unit has been operational since May. It’s essentially a room inside a home, filled with giant rolls of stretchy white fabric, gel sheets, onion sheets, and a small sterilisation machine (in which the handmade pads are placed for 30 minutes for disinfection), which is the only electrical component in the production process. “We don’t have to worry about getting a commercial electricity license and women can operate these machines on their own,” said Jeetendra Singh Solanki, who runs the CSC here.

The manual process production line & its modular manufacturing unit has been placed at CSCs to enable women to produce sanitary pads

The manual process production line and its modular manufacturing unit has been placed at CSCs to enable women to produce sanitary pads

There are two ways to ensure that every girl has access to a pad that’s cheap: first is the decentralisation of manufacturing of affordable pads and second is the distribution of pads sold at subsidised cost. This is the essentially the first time the government has laid emphasis on manufacture along with distribution. CSC licenses are given to social welfare enthusiasts who then run centres where a plethora of services, from computer courses to passport documentation help to Aadhaar linking services and information regarding government college admissions, is offered. In the case of the Stree Swabhiman Initiative, Jeetendra Solanki shared that the total expenditure of setting up the unit along with the material is nearly Rs 3 lakh (including the cost of raw material). The raw material (made in China and the United States) is regularly supplied by vendors appointed by the central government, and a subsidy from CSR funding is offered whenever the pads are distributed in schools and colleges. Mukesh, who runs a CSC in Noida Sector 74 says the scheme can spread to urban centres if two things are taken care of: one, the rent is high for a separate room to set up this unit and second, the installation cost as against the slow returns. Each pad costs Rs 5 and a woman is paid Rs 1 per pad.

The other CSC close to the capital is on the Meerut-Ghaziabad road, in a village called Sultanpur. It sprung open a month ago and the six women here are just about getting done with the training. “We hope to scale up production. We want these women to be able to make a living doing this and incentivise working in the sector for other women. One girl trained with us for two weeks and her parents didn’t let her continue. That is kind of stigma we need to wipe out,” said Vipin, the manager of the centre.

The problem at hand is greater than what meets the eye. A Menstrual Health in India Landscape Report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in May 2016 estimated that 18 percent of women use sanitary napkins. This means that almost 82 percent engage in unhygienic and unsafe alternatives such as old cloth, rags, hay and even ash. In Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori district, a girl named Bholi had to have her uterus removed because an insect had crawled into her vagina through the hay. Having menstruated all these years in the same unkind society, women at the CSCs in Uttar Pradesh understand well that the pads made by them might save lives and hopefully lend a new lease of life to collective conscience.

Firstpost reached out to CSCs across the country to assess the impact the initiative is reflecting.

“The sanitary napkins are made from raw materials that are cheap and organic and the post-production cost is Rs 2.50 per pack,” said Mukesh Kumar, who runs the CSC in Ludhiana. He added that the distribution of 20,000 pads a month is done by the workforce provided by the CSC Academies and NGOs who reach places where the need is highest and the availability minimal.

Amaresh Kumar Nayak, who mans the CSC centre in Jajapur, Odisha said the state has 17 units in different districts, and the production is on the high with on an average 800 packs produced in one day. Here, roughly 500 pieces are sold daily by the people who produce them, to spread awareness about the product. “The main objective behind engaging local communities in production and distribution is that the pads reach places where there is still no awareness about their usage, for instance, the Adivasi belts,” he explained. Just last month, the East Coast Railways (ECoR) provisioned a napkin dispenser in Bhubaneswar-Jagadalpur Hirakhand Express, a popular connecting train on the tribal-dominated route of Koraput, Rayagada, and Jagdalpur.

Project coordinator for the state of Telangana, Shiva Kumar has a similar story to share. The production in the state’s three units is 800 to 1000 pieces per day. “The state is working on two models, one is specifically for schools and other places where availability is scarce, and the second one is local, like supplying the products to pharmacies, and even grocery stores. Each pad is priced not more than Rs 3 and the distribution is done manually by the people who were involved in the production,” he explained. Again, the distribution is being done by the producer, so the marketing of the product and the awareness regarding its need can be addressed in one go. On an average, in Telangana, 10,000 sanitary pads are sold under this scheme in a month.

Women making sanitary napkins at a Common Service Centre in Jalgaon, Maharashtra

Women making sanitary napkins at a Common Service Centre in Jalgaon, Maharashtra

This also ties up to the Village Level Entrepreneur (VLE), the first initiative under the e-governance scheme. The VLE is supposed to provide services which are provided by CSC and thus to citizens, as first respondents of governance, so that the population of the catchments area reaps the benefits of a certain scheme. Parameshwari was the first VLE to set up a sanitary napkin manufacturing unit at her CSC in Thurkayamjal village in Ranga Reddy district of Telangana in September 2017. She started the unit with the help of CSC SPV and the women network of an NGO called Shine. Today, the unit now employs 15 women from local villages who produce more than 500- 600 pads on a daily basis. They have so far completed the production of 30,000 napkins. In Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, Krishna, Gokul Sonar, Nikita Sonar, Hemlata Sonar and Anil Sonar, who are all VLEs, formed a self-help group called the Human Development Foundation to monitor the functioning of a unit in the Pachora block of the district, which manufactures 500-600 sanitary napkins daily.

Women making sanitary napkins at the Common Service Centre in Murshidabad in West Bengal

Women making sanitary napkins at the Common Service Centre in Murshidabad in West Bengal

To measure the impact of the scheme, Firstpost spoke to Rashmi Jeta, part of the five-member central team. “Unlike older schemes that roped in Asha and Anganwadi workers to distribute napkins, this model encourages ‘only women entrepreneurs’ in the remotest areas,” Jeta stated that the scheme that was inaugurated by Ravi Shankar Prasad in January 2018 has already created 3 lakh village level entrepreneurs. “The target for 31st March 2018 is opening one unit in each of the 7,000 blocks across the country,” he specified. There’s a ‘donate now’ button flashing on the CSC website and Jeta confirms that it is through corporate funding from companies like HDFC, IndusInd Bank, Hewlett Packard the initiative is going from strength to strength.

To understand why state-backed manufacture of cheaper pads is necessary, Firstpost reached out to the proverbial ‘padmen’ and ‘padwomen’ who had been attempting to hack into this problem since much before the subject of menstrual hygiene became mainstream through cinema. In a story Firstpost reported earlier this year, Nageshwar Panchal, an engineer turned entrepreneur producing sanitary napkins in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, said, "The problem we face is that there isn’t quality machinery available for small-scale producers. The machines endure greater wear and tear and even after an installation cost of Rs 5 to Rs 6 lakh, the output isn’t more than 200 to 600 packets a day."

Dr Geeta Bora worked in a software firm in the US and returned to India last year to start her own sanitary napkin manufacturing unit. “I heard about an incident in Shikohabad, Uttar Pradesh where one lady used her old blouse during per period and a loose metal hook from that blouse entered her vagina and caused her a brutal tetanus death. That prompted me to move back,” Bora, who set up the Spherule Foundation in Pune, consolidates low-cost sanitary napkin manufacturers from Nashik and Beed in Maharashtra and one in Narsinghpur in Madhya Pradesh by helping them distribute their products. “These are basic napkins made with wood paper and cotton with the help of semi-automatic machines and are cheaper. We sell 20,000 of these pads in a month and the reason why the involvement of locals in production and distribution is necessary is that traditional retail chains increase the cost of the product by 60 percent,” Bora feels that the government is on the right track in building self-sustaining production-distribution chains that operate locally.

Anish Sharma, a brand consultant from Delhi, developed a biodegradable pad made from sugarcane gum and tragacanth gum (dried sap of legumes) that is high in cellulose properties. “In India, 25 crores use sanitary pads and to fulfill that one would need 87,000 units producing sanitary pads, but this is not happening as the cost goes up and the cost of the pads produced drops. If the government helps in the manufacturing, distribution, and expenditure, 18,000 to 20,000 pads can even be produced and distributed for free,” he estimated the impact that a scheme like Stree Swabhiman can have.

There are six to 10 women engaged in making sanitary napkins at each CSC. Here’s one at the centre in Indore

There are six to 10 women engaged in making sanitary napkins at each CSC. Here’s one at the centre in Indore

There are two more pad warriors who have a word of advice for the government. Mangesh Jha, who gave up his job in hospitality and started distributing sanitary napkins stitched by his mother to villages in Jharkhand, and Meena Mehta, who is a known as pad-dadi, and who didn’t take a single vacation in her life and saved every extra penny to put together hygiene kits for girls in Surat. Mangesh feels the government should also focus on the disposal of pads. “In a city like Ranchi, famous for its waterfalls, spotting piles of sanitary napkins is quite common. Emphasis should be laid on manufacturing pads that decompose quickly,” he also feels that the new initiative, which is expected to grow into something big should parallelly engage Anganwadi staff to educate little girls on menstrual hygiene.

Mehta, on the other hand, said that distributing pads is never enough because girls also need to be handed out soap and underwear. “If girls are using hay, mud, dried leaves, there’s a good chance these girls don’t have underwear either. This much should be done to ensure that basic hygiene standards are set around the country,” said Mehta, highlighting an aspect most government and CSR projects tend to oversee.

Mehta, along with nine other pad heroes was felicitated in the capital on World Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28 May, 2018. The man whose vision brought them and actor Akshay Kumar on one stage was Amar Tulsiyan, who founded ‘Niine’, a social enterprise start-up aimed at providing wide access to affordable sanitary napkins. Tulsiyan also started the Niine Movement, a five-year plan to engage genders and ages to tackle the taboos and stigma attached to menstruation. He told Firstpost that supplying sanitary napkins isn’t enough, and the need of the hour is generating awareness through an anti-tobacco like national level campaign. The CSC centres are run only by women. “There is a need to educate men as well. The fact that girls in India still use hay or ash should become common knowledge,” is Tulsiyan’s firm belief.

For Gandhi, the charkha was the symbol of nonviolence on which all life, if it is to be real life, was to be based. The charkha now finds itself the heart of another revolution.

Also read — The real Padman: How A Muruganantham launched a sanitary napkin revolution in India


Updated Date: Jul 31, 2018 20:26 PM

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