Di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers want the In­dian govern­ment to end the 18 per cent tax on san­i­tary pads, and dis­trib­ute free pads to poor vil­lage women

New Straits Times - - OPINION - Ma­hen­draved07@gmail.com

MEN­STRU­A­TION is one thing a woman any­where has to deal with every month. But, it is an age-old taboo sub­ject in In­dia. Men are ig­no­rant and women hate to talk about it.

It is not men­tioned in pub­lic. Even pri­vately, it is a sig­nal or a ges­ture. Many In­dian lan­guages do not have a proper word for it. The five-day or­deal is re­ferred to in se­ri­o­comic fash­ion as “test match”, as in cricket. Con­sid­ered “un­clean”, a men­stru­at­ing woman is iso­lated from rest of fam­ily. She is kept away from cook­ing, re­li­gious rit­u­als and much else. A de­fi­ant woman risks a fam­ily’s wrath. If you are a man, you run the risk of not fully com­pre­hend­ing what women who go through it de­sire. You could be mis­un­der­stood by both women and men.

Educa­tion has helped, but slowly. Peo­ple look away at its men­tion. A woman is un­der pres­sure to sub­mit to deeply em­bed­ded ideas, caus­ing clashes within the fam­ily, at times lead­ing to sep­a­ra­tion. Of the many rea­sons, some are so­cial, oth­ers eco­nomic. Women in ur­ban In­dia have, by and large, man­aged to shed the “shame” linked to pe­ri­ods, if for noth­ing else, to meet ne­ces­si­ties of city life. But, it is vastly dif­fer­ent in the vast coun­try­side.

It is a sub­ject cry­ing for at­ten­tion for long, con­sid­er­ing that only 12 per cent of In­dian women use san­i­tary pads and some 23 per cent of girls drop out of school when they reach pu­berty. Also con­sider how men­stru­at­ing women risk re­pro­duc­tive and uri­nary tract in­fec­tions due to un­hy­gienic prac­tices. The fe­male mor­tal­ity they cause goes largely un­recorded.

Film is the best medium in In­dia to cre­ate mass aware­ness. But, to make it re­quires courage — plus, imag­i­na­tion, so­cial aware­ness and com­mit­ment.

It has to be a fea­ture film to reach the masses. A doc­u­men­tary has lim­ited vis­i­bil­ity in In­dia. Few would have seen Amit Vir­mani’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary Men­strual Man.

The taboo topic is fi­nally un­fold­ing. Bri­tish Broadcasting Cor­po­ra­tion (BBC) be­gan re­port­ing in 2014. In the last one year, a Tamil lan­guage film and two from Bol­ly­wood have taken in­spi­ra­tion from Arunacha­lam Mu­ru­ganan­tham of Coim­bat­ore, Tamil Nadu, who has pi­o­neered san­i­tary pad­mak­ing ma­chines.

Re­sponses to the mod­estly­bud­geted “Phullu” and the big bud­get “PadMan” have been in­ter­est­ing. The for­mer re­ceived “Adults” cer­tifi­cate from overly cau­tious cen­sors, while the lat­ter re­ceived luke­warm re­views from nig­gardly film crit­ics.

Con­demned as “bor­ing”, Phullu sank with­out much of a trace at the box of­fice. As for PadMan, most crit­ics have rated it 3.5 out of five, when a glossy, es­capist fare gen­er­ally gets four-plus.

View­ing, per­haps, through only the en­ter­tain­ment prism, the crit­ics have lauded the mes­sage in PadMan, but has­tened to call it preachy and even a pub­lic re­la­tions ex­er­cise for the govern­ment. Prej­u­dices show, in one way or the other, when taboos and tra­di­tions are chal­lenged.

Across In­dia’s bor­der, in Pak­istan, the film is re­jected for not be­ing suit­able to “our cul­ture”. There are small mer­cies. PadMan, di­rected by R. Balki (Balakr­ish­nan), was re­leased with­out any protests and con­tro­ver­sies that de­layed di­rec­tor San­jay Leela Bhansali’s “Pad­maa­vat”. And, it is mak­ing money.

PadMan is helmed by two cou­ples — Balki, the di­rec­tor and Ak­shay Ku­mar who plays Mu­ru­ganan­tham, while their re­spec­tive wives, Gauri Shinde and Twin­kle Khanna are pro­duc­ers.

Ku­mar, hav­ing earned huge money and fame with a hun­dred­plus films, is now turn­ing to so­cial is­sues. His last year’s big hit was “Toi­let: Ek Prem Katha”, about a man’s fight to get toi­lets in his town and to end open defe­ca­tion.

This is an­other pri­vate is­sue of pub­lic shame in In­dia. In­deed, the two themes have much in com­mon and go well with Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s “clean In­dia” cam­paign.

But, Modi must in­ter­vene to end 18 per cent tax on san­i­tary pads. Balki and Ku­mar want the tax to go and want free dis­tri­bu­tion of pads among the poor vil­lage women.

Mu­ru­ganan­tham’s mes­sage is mov­ing and rel­e­vant. He told BBC of how in 1998, he was shocked to dis­cover that his wife Shan­thi was us­ing rags (nasty cloths, he called them). She pleaded that if she were to pur­chase san­i­tary pads, there wouldn’t be enough money to feed the fam­ily.

A school and job drop-out, he won­dered why a pad made of 10g of cot­ton, which at the time cost 10 paise , a hun­dredth of an In­dian ru­pee, should sell for four ru­pees — 40 times the price.

For re­search­ing, even ex­per­i­ment­ing on him­self by don­ning a pad us­ing an­i­mal blood and pub­licly ad­vo­cat­ing its use, Mu­ru­ganan­tham be­came a so­cial out­cast. His mother and wife left him. With some in­sti­tu­tional help, his dogged­ness has paid. His min­i­ma­chines that can make san­i­tary pads for less than a third of the cost of com­mer­cial pads have been in­stalled in 23 of the 29 states of In­dia. He is cur­rently plan­ning to hike pro­duc­tion and ex­port these ma­chines to 106 na­tions.

More en­trepreneurs have en­tered this area and some pro­pose to use waste ba­nana fi­bre or bam­boo to make pads.

These ma­chines have had a cas­cad­ing ef­fect on so­ci­ety. They cre­ate jobs and in­come for many women. Af­ford­able pads en­able many more women to keep work­ing dur­ing men­stru­a­tion.

A cur­sory look at the mar­ket for san­i­tary pads shows that for­eign brands, in­clud­ing Chi­nese, dom­i­nate. Lo­cally made prod­ucts, mainly in south­ern In­dia, are rel­a­tively cheaper, cater­ing to the poor.

Use of a pad seems dic­tated by eco­nomic, so­cial and fa­mil­ial norms. The cheap­est branded pad costs Rs 12 and needs to be changed thrice a day. Tra­di­tion­ally, given to mak­ing sac­ri­fice for the fam­ily, even a mid­dle-class woman may pre­fer use of cloth — an old sa­ree, may be — and spend the money to buy veg­eta­bles. Health is­sues, then, re­main un­re­solved.

Mu­ru­ganan­tham’s rev­o­lu­tion has yet to gain univer­sal ac­cep­tance. He is un­daunted. “My aim was to cre­ate one mil­lion jobs for poor women — but, why not 10 mil­lion jobs world­wide?”

A cur­sory look at the mar­ket for san­i­tary pads shows that for­eign brands, in­clud­ing Chi­nese, dom­i­nate. Lo­cally-made prod­ucts, mainly in south­ern In­dia, are rel­a­tively cheaper, cater­ing to the poor.

The writer is pres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion (2016-2018) and a con­sul­tant with the ‘Power Pol­i­tics’ monthly mag­a­zine


In­dian devo­tees of­fer­ing prayers dur­ing a fes­ti­val. Women who are men­stru­at­ing are not al­lowed to per­form such prayers and are iso­lated from the rest of the fam­ily.

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