Arunachalam Muruganantham, affectionately known as "Padman," is a name that has become synonymous with revolutionising menstrual hygiene in rural India. Hailing from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, Muruganantham's remarkable journey from poverty to pioneering a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine is nothing short of inspiring. His story not only garnered international attention but also led to the production of the Bollywood film "Pad Man," starring Akshay Kumar.
Born in 1961, Muruganantham's early life was marked by financial hardship following the tragic loss of his father in a road accident. In a bid to support his family, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 and took on various jobs, ranging from supplying food to factory workers to working as a machine tool operator, yam-selling agent, farm labourer, and welder. These humble beginnings served as the backdrop for his later groundbreaking work.
In 1998, Muruganantham's life took a significant turn when he got married to Shanthi. Shortly thereafter, he discovered that his wife, like many women in rural India, resorted to using filthy rags and newspapers during her menstrual cycle due to the high cost of commercial sanitary napkins. Troubled by this unhygienic and uncomfortable practice, he embarked on a journey to find a solution.
Initially, he experimented with making sanitary pads out of cotton, but his prototypes were rejected by his wife and sisters. As they withdrew their support, he decided to test his inventions on himself, using a bladder filled with animal blood as a substitute. However, when his "sanitary pad" was discovered in his village, it made him a subject of ridicule and ostracism. In India, menstruation has long been considered a taboo subject, and discussing it openly was almost unthinkable.
Despite the societal backlash and ridicule, Muruganantham persisted in his quest to find an affordable and effective solution. It took him two years to uncover the secret behind commercial sanitary pads: cellulose fibres derived from pine bark wood pulp, which offered both absorption and shape retention. Importantly, imported machines used in the manufacturing process were exorbitantly expensive, costing ₹35 million (US$440,000).
Determined to make a difference, Muruganantham designed a low-cost machine that required minimal training to operate. He sourced processed pine wood pulp from a supplier in Mumbai, and his machines would grind, de-fibrate, press, sterilise, and package the pads under ultraviolet light. The cost of this revolutionary machine? Just ₹65,000 (US$810).
Arunachalam Muruganantham's invention did not go unnoticed. In 2006, he visited IIT Madras, where he shared his ideas and received suggestions. The innovation was subsequently registered for the National Innovation Foundation's Grassroots Technological Innovations Award, which it won. With seed funding in hand, he founded Jayaashree Industries, a company that markets these machines to rural women across India.
Muruganantham's invention has earned praise for its simplicity and cost-effectiveness, and his unwavering commitment to social betterment has garnered him several prestigious awards. Despite lucrative offers from corporate entities to commercialise his venture, he has chosen to provide these machines to self-help groups (SHGs) run by women, ensuring that the benefits of his innovation reach those who need them the most.
The impact of Muruganantham's invention is profound. It has created jobs and income opportunities for countless women and made sanitary pads affordable, enabling more women to earn a livelihood during menstruation. His work has also inspired numerous other entrepreneurs to enter this field, further innovating in the domain of menstrual hygiene.
Arunachalam Muruganantham's story has transcended borders and media. He has given lectures at prestigious institutions, including IIT Bombay, IIT Madras, IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani – Goa Campus, and even Harvard University. He has also delivered a compelling TED talk, spreading his message of change far and wide.
Muruganantham's remarkable journey became the subject of a prize-winning documentary by Amit Virmani, titled "Menstrual Man." The story also inspired the Bollywood film "Pad Man," where Indian actor Akshay Kumar portrayed the determined innovator. The impact of his work even extended to the international stage when the documentary "Period. End of Sentence." won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in 2018.
Arunachalam Muruganantham's life and work serve as a testament to the power of determination, innovation, and unwavering commitment to a social cause. Through his invention, he has not only transformed the lives of countless women in India but has also paved the way for greater awareness and progress in the field of menstrual hygiene worldwide. His story is an inspiration to us all, proving that a single individual's passion and dedication can change the world for the better.