09 Feb 2018 19:27 IST

Lijjat Papad: For, of and by the women

Lijjat Papad bl on campus

Seven women embarked on a journey that would transform the lives of their own and many other women

The number seven is considered to be lucky by many. But it was not luck or chance that brought seven illiterate Gujarati women together on the terrace of their housing complex in Girgaum, Mumbai in 1959. It is an oft-repeated and popular story: the women, who were looking for ways to supplement their family incomes, decided to utilise their culinary skills and free time to roll out papads and sell them for money.

Most Indian meals are incomplete without some form or the other of the papad, a thin, crunchy and (usually) round wafer that can be either roasted, fried or microwaved. Different seasonings make the papad an any time snack as well.

Almost all women, especially those in Maharashtra, know how to knead the dough (comprising lentil, chickpeas, black gram, salt and oil), roll out papads and dry them in the sun. The seven women who got together to make a business out of this skill were embarking on a journey that would transform their lives and those of many other women.

The humble beginnings

With ₹80 borrowed from a social worker and well-wisher Chhaganlal Karamshi Parekh, or Chaganbapa as he was fondly called, the septet rolled out four packets of papads on March 15, 1959 and gave them to a nearby shop owner. The product was very well received and a repeat order was placed with them the very next day! Within 15 days, the loan was paid off — a remarkable achievement in those days.

More papads were prepared and sent for sale. A few months later, more women joined the venture. As the workforce increased and the terrace became crowded, the problem of space was solved by supplying freshly kneaded dough; the women could then roll the papads at home. The finished products would then be brought in the next day, tested, weighed and packed for delivery (This procedure is followed even today).

At the end of the first year, the organisation had realised sales of more than ₹6,000. By the second year, problems like cessation of activity during the rainy season were tackled and resolved. As word spread about their entrepreneurial venture, more women came to join in; the number swelled to 300 by the third year.

The highlights

In 1962, the Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad (SMGULP) — a worker’s cooperative following the Gandhian principles of collective ownership or Sarvodaya — was set up. A contest for choosing the brand name resulted in the adoption of ‘Lijjat’ (‘tasty’ in Gujarati). It became so popular that the cooperative itself came to be referred thus.

Sales crossed the one lakh mark in 1962-63. In 1966, there were some important developments.

Lijjat was registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act 1860 and under the Bombay Public Trusts Act 1950. It adopted its first written constitution and the now-familiar logo of a woman’s hand holding aloft a lotus with the slogan ‘Symbol of Women’s Strength’. The Khadi Development and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) officially recognised it as a village industry. The last move meant that Lijjat got some tax exemptions and a working capital of ₹800,000.

Women power!

The organisation is ‘for the women, of the women and by the women’. Any woman above the age of 18 (irrespective of caste, religion or colour) who wants to roll papads can approach a Lijjat office, sign the pledge and become a sister-member or behn. No one is turned away (It is a mystery to market watchers as to how the organisation, instead of collapsing under the weight of the growing workforce, continues to gain in strength).

After training, she can choose a sphere of work she is comfortable in — kneading the dough; rolling papads; weighing; packing; printing. The work environment is non-competitive. Each woman is paid on a daily basis for the work done and profits are shared equally. Every behn has the opportunity to rise from the lowest level to the highest ranks in the organisational structure. There is no retirement age, but anyone can voluntarily leave the organisation.

Men can be salaried employees but have no part in the profits or in the decision-making process.

Twenty-one members, chosen by consensus, run the organisation. Sanchalikas or branch heads manage branches. Office-bearers meet regularly to coordinate activities at the State and national level. All branches are autonomous, and handle marketing and profit distribution among the behns.

Branches and expansion

The emphasis has always been on consistently good quality, which is the brand’s USP. The founders took pains to ensure uniform quality by training women at the branches they opened and through a common source of raw material supply from the centre. Cleanliness and hygiene are also maintained at the workplaces (home and office).

Two attempts to start branches of Lijjat — at Malad and Sangli, in 1961 and 1966 respectively — were unsuccessful. But when it opened its first branch outside Maharashtra at Valod, Gujarat in 1968, the results were favourable. This was followed by diversification into other products and the setting up of other branches.

The 1970s saw Lijjat setting up flour mills, a printing division and a polypropylene packing division. By not outsourcing the last two activities, it cut down on the possibilities of duplication and fake merchandise.

Minimal advertising

By the 1980s, Lijjat was participating in fairs and exhibitions and etching its name in the public memory. Old-timers may recall the endearing bunny advertisement with the infectious laugh and the ‘Kharram kurram’ tagline on Doordarshan in the 1980s: it was the first ad to feature a muppet and captured the public imagination.

But Lijjat did not spend much on advertising, choosing, instead, to let its quality speak for itself.

The papads continue to be handmade to keep to the initial objective of providing maximum employment to women. Storage space isn’t an issue as a majority of the inventory is not stocked. Pricing is reasonable, with downward revisions being effected when raw material rates fall. The revised rates are even advertised in newspapers to prevent overcharging by distributors.

Products and distribution

Lijjat sells its products through a network of loyal dealers (who get 7 per cent commission) and distributors. It is the leader in the organised papad market, with about 60 per cent market share. Despite this, it is basically a non-profit organisation, with only 2 per cent of the turnover retained for organisational expenditure. The remaining amount is distributed among its members thrice a year in the form of gold or cash. There is no credit method in any of its dealings and all members can access the account books.

An in-house magazine, the Lijjat Patrika, available in English, Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi, keeps the women informed about the co-operative’s activities.

The product range has expanded and today includes Papad (seven for local markets and 14 for exports); Jeera Papad (long variety); Appalam; Masala (traditional and ready mix); Gehun Aata; chapaati; SASA detergent (powder, cake and liquid); and dishwash bar. All these come in different pack sizes and are priced reasonably.

International attention

Today Lijjat has 81 branches, 27 divisions, a headoffice in Mumbai and more than 40,000 workers. Plans are afoot to increase the number of branches to 100 and scale up the workforce to 50,000. It has also expanded abroad and exports its products to the Middle East, Europe, Singapore, Netherlands, Thailand and the US.

The cooperative’s unique style of functioning has piqued the curiosity of international leaders, with officials from foreign countries such as Israel, the UK, Iran, Sudan, Uganda and Sri Lanka visiting Lijjat’s offices to learn and promote similar ventures in their countries.

The organisation has faced worrying situations like disruption from outside forces and duplication of their flagship product, which were legally tackled.

Awards and CSRs

This ISO 9001:2015 certified company has won several awards: the Best Village Industry award for 1998-99, 2000-01, 2003, 2012-13; ET Award of ‘Businesswomen of the Year’ 2001-02 for Corporate Excellence; Power Brand 2010-11; Entrepreneur Award 2014; Mahila Vikas Award for 2017; the Global Economic Award for outstanding contribution to women’s empowerment and self-reliance; and the Wockhardt Foundation Social Development Award 2017.

Lijjat takes its responsibility to the community seriously. The children of the behns are educated, given scholarships and provided healthcare. The Valod Centre has an educational and hobby centre that provides courses in tailoring, typing and toy-making, among others, to rural women. In fact, Valod got its first ever tarred road courtesy Lijjat! Earthquake-affected areas like Chincholi (Latur district, Maharashtra) and Bhujpur (Kutch, Gujarat) saw several houses being built for the people with funds from Lijjat.

Other projects voluntarily undertaken by the company include blood donation drives, supply of water tankers and green fodder to drought-hit areas, helping cholera victims by donating more than 25,000 salt-sugar packets, planting trees, participating in cleanliness drives, distributing anti-malaria drugs, supply of nutritious food to poor children, and many others.

In the late 1970s, Lijjat also organised a seminar at Mumbai on ‘Childcare and Mother Welfare’ in collaboration with the UNICEF.