What a Bollywood movie tells us about the economy

January 18, 2019 18:08
Arunachalam Muruganantham and his pad-making machines. Photo: DesignForFreedom/YouTube

Some are worried that the global economic growth may run out of steam if the world’s largest growth engine, China, shifts to a lower gear. 

A recent Bollywood movie, Pad Man, may offer some insight as to why this need not be the case. 

The film was inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from India.  

In 1998, he found out that his wife was using a rag during her periods. He was shocked to discover how common the practice was in India. At the time, over 90 percent of Indian women could not afford sanitary pads, which were then all imported and cost 50 rupees each. 

He thought it was a rather simple product and wondered why Indian companies did not think of making them despite the huge market. 

Muruganantham soon learned that sanitary pads actually use the highly absorbent cellulose fiber, which is quite expensive to make. 

Also, a pad-making machine cost 35 million rupees (about half a million US dollars) and required complex techniques to operate. Local companies simply didn't have the money or skills. 

But Muruganantham did not give up. He spent eight years developing his own pad-making machine, which cost only 65,000 rupees. The average cost of each pad came down to 5 rupees, or just a tenth of foreign brands. 

Upon learning of his invention, many companies wanted to buy the patent from Muruganantham, but he turned down their offers. Instead, he authorized local self-help women groups to use his patent, thus helping create jobs for local women.

Muruganantham was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2014. In 2016, he won an Indian national award, the Padma Shri, which is given to civilians for their valuable contributions to society.

Today, about 80 percent of Indian women still cannot afford sanity pads. The reason for this is complicated. Their lack of education and job opportunities could be part of it.

Hundreds of thousands of women in Asia and Africa are in a similar situation.

Muruganantham continues his work in social enterprises. He intends to sell his low-cost pad-making machines to more than 100 developing countries around the world for the benefit of more women.

India now has 1.3 billion people and is expected to become the world’s most populous nation by 2024.

For emerging economies as a whole, there is still a huge room for improvement in their living standards.

Before every woman can afford sanitary pads, global demand will remain far from saturated.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 18

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist