A life-sized rabbit, holding a crispy papad and singing a catchy jingle about how karram kurram the flat disc is: this, if you are a millennial, was probably your first introduction to Lijjat Papad. One of the most iconic advertisements from the ‘90s, the words karram kurram are so instantly recognisable that it’s also the title of Ashutosh Gowariker’s next film, which is of course based on the lives of the amazing women behind Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad.
Truth be told, it is a story worth telling, and one that’s long overdue, especially given the uplifting and empowering role these women have played in the lives of homemakers, small-business owners, and entrepreneurs across the country for over six decades now. Like most cooperatives, Lijjat Papad started out small with just seven founding members. The fact that it now employs around 45,000 women across 17 states of the country, and reportedly has an annual turnover of over ₹800 crore—that too based on the unskilled labour of women who hand-roll the papads instead of machine-pressing them even today—highlights the fact that women from all walks of life can make it into the world of finance, and succeed even if they don’t have millions in seed capital or fancy degrees from Ivy Leagues.
How they got the papad rollingThe beginning of Lijjat Papad’s success story might be quite familiar to you if, like this author, you were brought up in the states of Gujarat or Maharashtra. Homemakers in most housing societies in these states have come together to make a year’s worth of papad, farsaan (snacks), and pickles for decades, a practice initiated thanks to the understanding that making all these edibles which can be easily stored for months, is labour-intensive and simply not possible for one woman alone. A sense of community, respect, and shared labour is at the very core of this culture.
It was the existence of this practice that brought together seven women from Mumbai’s Gurgaum, in the ‘50s. Their goal was not to make a large batch of papad for their homes, but to see if the product they create can be sold in the market to supplement their household incomes. Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat, Jayaben B Vithalani, Parvatiben Ramdas Thodani, Ujamben Narandas Kundalia, Banuben N Tanna, and Laguben A Gokani borrowed 80 rupees from Chhanganlal Karamsi Parekh to buy basic ingredients like urad dal flour, asafoetida, and spices. The women then got together one afternoon and made four packets of papad, which sold for 50 paiseeach.
While this might seem like an insignificant amount by today’s standards, it was enough in the 1950s to encourage these women to come back every day, roll more papads, sell the packets and divide the profits. Their venture seemed quite profitable, and more women started joining their group, and slowly, the small business spread to other parts of Mumbai as well. Over the years, and with continued success, Lijjat Papad spread its operations across the country, and gradually became the success it is today. The decades-long contributions of this cooperative in empowering women and providing them with a means of livelihood, while functioning as a successful business, has won the founding women many accolades, including the recently-bestowed Padma Shri to Jaswantiben.
Overcoming hurdles along the wayBut don’t let the success of Lijjat Papad fool you into believing that it was smooth sailing all the way for the women. There were some major hurdles they had to cross during their initial years. The most basic one, of course, was finance. Their venture, except for the initial seed money provided by Parekh, was completely self-financed. This means, unless they made enough sales, they would not have the capacity to function beyond a certain point. Parekh, who joined the cooperative as its mentor, had advised the women against accepting donations, and instead, encouraged them to be self-reliant. When in dire need and short of capital, the cooperative’s policy is to voluntarily cut the fees of the women making the product. While this may have made their jobs more difficult, the fact that this policy of ‘no donations’ is adhered to even today, reiterates the idea that their hard work and efforts are worth all the pain and struggle if it re-establishes self-esteem and self-reliance.
But self-financing is easier said than done, especially when your business depends partly on the vagaries of the weather. Papads are traditionally sun-dried and therefore cannot be produced during the months of monsoon. When encountered with the first monsoon, Lijjat Papad had to stop all production. The cooperative does not believe in mechanisation, because it requires more capital than a self-reliant business could possibly have access to, and because non-mechanisation makes their group easier to join by women from all economic backgrounds. Naturally, then, machine-drying papads for sale during the heavy monsoons was simply not an option.
To resolve this seasonal problem, the women used that age-old Indian resource of jugaad and smartly innovated a solution: they placed a hot stove under a cot and dried the papad on it. The cooperative still uses non-mechanised methods like this, which make it less capital-intensive while providing its members with the returns, dignity and acknowledgement their labour deserves.
The ‘60s and beyondMany of the initial growing pains experienced by the women behind Lijjat Papad took almost a decade’s constant hard work, innovation and resolve to get over. In 1966, the cooperative was registered under the Bombay Public Trusts Act of 1950 and the Societies Registration Act of 1860. This helped Lijjat Papad not only the recognition of the Khadi & Village Industries Commission, but also some tax exemptions that aided its function.
As the cooperative grew in size and received a national stature, many women who grew up under the able guiding hand of the founding members rose through the ranks, gained more market experience and were able to further the interests of the group through changing times. The current president of the cooperative, Swati Paradkar, has had a 50-year-long association with Lijjat Papad. She started out rolling papads with her mother and sisters at the age of 10 years, and has since been a store-keeper, branch head, and a member of the Central Managing Committee, before reaching the position she is in now. Most women who now run the day-to-day operation of the cooperative have had similar experiences and made their own contributions in keeping the group up-to-date over the last three-four decades.
The popular karram kurram jingle from the ‘90s is a clear example of how ‘with the times’ Lijjat Papad was, especially where utilising the power of public perception and outreach was concerned. The cooperative may not be on social media platforms right now, but their popularity has never waned. The prime reason behind this continued popularity is the opportunity for financial independence, self-reliance, and dignity Lijjat Papad has provided women from urban, rural, and lower economic strata for decades, with a consistency in returns and brand value that many newbies in finance or business vie for constantly. Lijjat Papad is, at its root, a successful enterprise because it trusts women’s financial abilities and is based on the idea of sisterhood in an industry that still remains largely dominated by men.