Face to Face - Prasanta J Baruah

Nayan Saikia of Biswanath Chariali is today known as the Padman’ of Assam. Inspired by the work of Arunachalam Maruganantham, the ‘Padman’ of India, Saikia, a graduate in Hotel Management left his job to work in Assam by opening an NGO called ‘Always Foundation’ to make low cost sanitary napkins which could be afforded by the rural and tea garden women in the state.

What is the current status of the use of sanitary napkins among the rural women in a developing country like India?

The women in the city have awareness and access to sanitary pads but the rural women do not have that. Also, the women in rural areas even if they wish to use sanitary pads, do not have the access to it and the only way to get it is to buy from a shop. Therefore, because the women are not well aware and properly educated about periods, they shy away from going to the shop and buying it from a male shopkeeper. It is because in a conservative society like ours ‘Periods’ is a matter of taboo and not to be openly discussed about.

Thirdly, because the economic condition of most of the people in villages is so weak that they barely manage to earn bread for the family. So, in a situation like this affording sanitary pads on a monthly basis becomes impossible for them. The women therefore opt to use clothes instead of pads which results in health hazards in the long run about which they have no knowledge. Therefore, our main motto is to remove that taboo. To make people more and more aware about it, to remove those superstitious practices which make women stay separately during the periods because they are considered impure during the menstrual cycle and to make pads more accessible and affordable for them.

What is the prevailing scenario in Assam?

When we started this project, people in Assam were very hesitant to talk about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. However, there has been a big shift in Assam especially since the government intervened and started distributing sanitary pads for free in rural areas. We have teamed up with the Government of Assam and have run several menstrual campaigns which has definitely educated many women and made them aware.

A social entrepreneur of Tamil Nadu Arunachalam Maruganantham revolutionised the ease of access to affordable sanitary pads across the country. How did he go about it?

Arunachalam Maruganantham is the pioneer of the movement. He has opened the eyes of many and paved the way for us. His work has inspired many people like me. He has taught us that napkins can be made at low cost and made available for everyone irrespective of their financial condition.

His story inspired the Bollywood film “Padman”. What impact did the film have on the Indian people?

The movie “Padman” has made people more aware about menstruation and the importance of menstrual hygiene. It has in many ways removed the taboo around talking about menstruation especially among rural women. Although the impact is small, there have been a few individuals who have been influenced by the movie and have come up to make a difference.

You were inspired by Maruganantham’s story to take up a similar project in Assam. How did you go about it?

Towards the end of December 2012,we started our project with a small production unit and we launched a brand named “Always”. At first we started it by conducting individual awareness camps in the villages. And in 2017 we opened an NGO named “Always Foundation”. Through the NGO we took the responsibility to train the self help groups for making pads. We have worked under Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission (ASRLM). We also launched  brand name “Sakhi”and with other NGO’s help we also launched “Sakti” and “Nari”. We trained them for manufacturing sanitary napkins.

How far have you been able to touch the lives of the women in villages and tea gardens?

We have visited many tea gardens situated in the far of rural areas where we have learnt that 95% of women are not aware and do not even have access to sanitary pads. Their wages hardly earn them 150-200 rupees a day which makes it impossible for them to even think about purchasing a sanitary pad every month.

What is your production capacity today and how are you helping other NGOs and SHGs to spread the use of low cost pads?

We produce around 1000 - 1500 sanitary napkins in every production unit every day. We are connected to various NGOs not just in Assam but all around the north eastern states, Bihar and West Bengal. We have introduced the NGOs to the raw materials suppliers and trained them on how to make sanitary napkins on their own. We have not marketed our product by giving it away to the wholesale markets. Our marketing agents are the village women themselves which gives the customer a much easier access to the product.

In what way has the government responded to your initiative?

We have received a good response. We are making a good sale although due to lockdown we faced some problems in between. We had to shut some of the factories down as we had trouble in getting the raw materials because some of them are imported from countries outside India.

Sanitary napkins is a big business today. Big corporates are involved. What hurdles are you facing under such a competitive market?

Yes, it is. If we see it as a business, there is huge competition. Multinationals have access to proper and better machines. They have a brand name in the market for which they can charge higher prices for their product. But what we are doing is for a noble cause. So, we do not see it as a competition but more as a help to those deprived and uneducated section of the society.

Are you receiving any funds from external sources for your project.

When I started, I had no external investments for the project. It was all at my own expense. I do have other sources of income which helped me put some of the machinery together. I even had to borrow some money to invest in the set up. Although, I must admit that when we are called by the NGOs for awareness campaigns, we are provided with travel allowances but that is about it.

How do you visualise the future of your project?

I see it growing. Making more people aware and influencing more people to come forward for the cause so that together we can drive away the superstitions involved with menstruation. I look forward to working harder and bringing a change in the society.

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