Archive for February 25th, 2010

Killing Local Innovation, Fattening Multinationals?

25 February 2010
The right hand of the government doesn’t know what the left is doing. Or that is how things appear when ‘Money’ clouds the vision of our politicians. Menstrual hygiene or the absence of it is one of the intractable problems associated with the reproductive health of the women in rural India and even in poor families in urban landscapes. One man, who was a school dropout, came face to face with this problem, “….Once he noticed his wife going to the toilet with an old cloth. On his enquiry, she said it was not an issue related to the concern of men. He surmised that she was using the old cloth as a substitute of sanitary napkin. When asked as to why she was not using a regular sanitary napkin her answer was a revelation to him. She said that if all the female members of the family were to buy sanitary napkins, then they would have to cut down on the family budget for milk every month”. He is A Muruganantham and he decided to do something about it. He did what he knows best. He designed and produced a machine to make low cost sanitary napkins for just INR 100,000/-. It makes 2 pads per minute and employs about 4 people in the process. Best part is that when a blank cheque was given to him to name his price for the innovation, he refused. He has patented his design (1827/CHE/2008) and wants to supply such units to women’s self help groups. August 2009 issue of Tehelka magazine reported, “In 2006, IIT (Madras) awarded the first prize to Muruganantham in a contest for innovating for betterment of society”. The story, The Pad that does not Whisper, was filed by P C Vinoj Kumar, a journalist from Chennai.
© Tehelka Magazine

National Innovation Foundation feted Muruganantham with a national grassroots innovation award on 18th/ 19th November2009 at IARI in Delhi. President of India said on the occasion, “….I am really very glad to be here at this function where the work of grassroots innovators, young creative children and traditional knowledge holders has been recognized. I congratulate them for winning the awards. I am not only impressed with the exhibits but also inspired by the “Innovation Exhibition”. Now it is a challenge for us to undertake mass production, which is basically very important”. “What a wonderful day this has been.  May I request you to start with applause for innovative India!  You know I have always said the “I” in “India” should not stand for inhibition.  The “I” in “India” should not stand for imitation.  The “I” in “India” must always stand for innovation.  “I” in “Industry” must stand for innovation, “I” in every “Institution” must stand for innovation and “I” in “I” in every individual must stand for innovation”, added Dr Mashelkar, Ex-Director General of CSIR.

One would have expected with these brave words of our president that when the government of India decided to promote sanitary pads in rural India as a health measure, it would have Jayashree Industries of Muruganantham upper most in its mind. It would have served, had it chosen to do so, some of the Millennium Development Goals.

Promoting ventures like Jayashree Industries would provide employment to women through the operations of Women’s Self Help groups (Gender Equality), would encourage micro enterprises to innovate, together these two would address problem of livelihoods for most vulnerable sections of society (Poverty and Hunger), and finally it would achieve the goal of promoting health of rural & poor women (Maternal health). Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MHFW) is set to embark upon an ambitious programme, reports The Hindu on 21st February 2010, to reach about 200 million women with 100 sanitary pads per person per annum with a budget of some INR 20 billion in next 3 to 6 months. “….Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said on Saturday that the government intended to take care of the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescent girls through a community-led programme for behaviour change by promoting the use of sanitary napkins. In the absence of affordable sanitary napkins, poor women are forced to use rags during menstrual cycle. Public health experts say this practice, and the resultant poor hygiene, are one of the reasons for the high incidence of reproductive tract infections in India”. This is indeed a laudable mission.

The Hindu report doesn’t mention anything about the sources of supply of these sanitary pads. But suggests Vinoj Kumar that MHFW is likely to turn to “Richie rich” multinationals like Proctor & Gamble (Whisper), Johnson & Johnson (Stayfree & Carefree) and Kimberley Clark Lever (Poise) for supplying these needs. He doesn’t not cite any sources or reasons for his claim (Free sanitary napkins – A scam in the making?). But there are indications in the Hindu report that do buttress his charge. Check these 2 sentences,

 -“….working on a scheme to provide women living below poverty line (BPL) with free sanitary napkins. The scheme, which will eventually supply “highly subsidised” sanitary napkins to women above the poverty line….”;  and

-“….is likely to be rolled out gradually, in three to six months from now. Once fully implemented, the scheme may touch the lives of 20 crore women”.
There are two issues of concern here that raise doubts about the true intentions of the MHFW – “highly subsidized” & “three to six months”. A little arithmetic shows that 20,000 million sanitary pads will cost around 20,000 million rupees or about Rs. 1/ pad. Now the sanitary pads made on machines designed by Muruganantham are already costing about that much. Therefore use of “highly subsidized” doesn’t make sense. Moreover, scaling up raw material procurement would bring down the cost probably below that magic figure of Rs. 1. The breakup of below BPL and above BPL women who will be covered by the scheme is not given. Assuming it is 50:50, the cost for free supplies should come down to INR 10 billion. As far as timeline is concerned, to supply about 1,700 million pads/ month, one would require (@ 1000 pads/day per machine) about 4,700 machines from Jayashree Industries. Now delivering these machines in 3 to 6 months would be well nigh impossible for this unit. Here in lies the crunch that supports the fears expressed by the journalist. It is quite likely if this scheme is pushed through as stated then recourse will be taken to supplies form the above mentioned multinationals, subsidizing the profits of these companies at great cost to exchequer, and in the process crushing indigenous innovation using our own money.

Women’s problem on this score is as old as womankind. If their opinion is taken into consideration, then they would be willing to wait a little longer for the indigenous enterprise to deliver the solution a little later. Jayashree Industies could franchise a 50 or so small scale units to deliver say 10 units each every month to create the necessary capacity build up in just under a year. Government then would stand true to its commitment made under the MDG. Should we all not speak up to prevent a likely scam to fatten the already fat cats and instead force the government to build up capacities among the vulnerable sections by encouraging close loop production and +consumption