Conservancy workers at the Central Station probably have one of the most difficult jobs on earth. Day after day they clean human waste off train tracks using their bare hands, with nothing but slippers to protect their feet. The situation was much worse for these men and women in the late Sixties. Apart from various occupational hazards, skin diseases were rampant among them.
That’s when a medical student, who was also trained in Ayurveda, decided to help them. V.P. Sidhan first made medicinal oil and distributed it to these workers. On a suggestion from friends, he began providing a more accessible product — soaps. Dr. Sidhan made these soaps with his wife in the kitchen of their house in Perambur. Soon, his doctor friends started to prescribe his soaps. In 1969, Dr. Sidhan named his soap ‘Medimix’. Four decades on, his family continues to make the soap he pioneered.
The story of Medimix is as interesting as its founder’s. Today, seated in his office with a photo of Dr. Sidhan on the wall, A.V. Anoop, his son-in-law, speaks of ‘karunochi’ and ‘koduveli’ herbs as fluently as central excise benefits and attrition levels. Anoop is the chairman and managing director of AVA Group that manufactures and sells Medimix in the South.
Medimix makes soaps by hand — as a result of which they claim to use minimal electricity. “Initially, we did have central excise and VAT benefits,” says Anoop. He adds that their way of working lets them “save power” and “benefit the labour (force)”.
The moment I enter their Puducherry factory, memories from a different time come rushing in. We are ushered into the unit where about one lakh soaps are made every day. The fragrance takes me back to summer holidays at my grandmother’s place in Madurai; to musty air-conditioned hotel rooms in hill-stations; to college hostels with a long corridor…
The making section, where a chemical reaction when lye is mixed with heated oil results in the formation of soap, is devoid of engines and motors. Instead, gravity guides the oils through pipes and human hands rotate the drums. At the cutting section, Subashree and her team of 15 women slice rectangular soap slabs that were sectioned off a mammoth cake weighing over 100 kg. The green cakes travel on a conveyor belt where they are further chopped into soap bars.
Once the soaps are cut, their edges rounded to machine-made perfection, they are stamped with the brand’s logo. A row of women hand-punch the logo by bringing down a lever over the soap — each of them press around 15,000 soaps on an eight-hour shift. The bars are then packed, also by a team of women. At the packaging section, S. Kalavathy’s hands work at a feverish pace. She slides a bar into a plastic cover and shoves it into the soap carton; her hands move from one bar to the other, discarding defective ones along they way.
These women form 70 per cent of the workforce. Anoop says that many have been with them since the factory was started. “The factories are all located at economically backward localities,” he adds.
Anoop knows that by embracing technology, he can cut down on his workforce. “But I have no such intentions,” he says. “I don’t envisage change for the next 10 to 15 years.” For, people improvise, bring in innovations in the manufacturing process, and provide a unique touch to the product and the work culture. “The output has improved. Initially, a worker would press about 4,000 soaps, but now, it’s about 15,000,” says Anoop.
Though his company has brought in new varieties such as the medicinal glycerine soaps, their business is driven by the original green version that is said to contain ayurvedic herbs. “Major changes didn’t take place,” agrees Anoop. He retains the conservative set-up that Dr. Sidhan created. The ingredients that go into the making of the soap haven’t changed much from the original. He didn’t want the company to go public and Anoop maintains it that way. “We are a family business; we want to remain small and lead a happy life.”