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Rs 80 Loan to Rs 1,600 Crore Icon: The 7 Women Behind India’s Favourite Lijjat Papad

Rs 80 Loan to Rs 1,600 Crore Icon: The 7 Women Behind India’s Favourite Lijjat Papad

If the Khurram Kharram jingle cemented its place in the audience’s mind, the humble product won millions of hearts. Coming from a Gujarati family, I can vouch that no meal is complete without Lijjat Papad.

Mehmaon ko khush kar jaye
Kharram Khurram
Mazedaar, lazzatdaar
Swaad swaad mein lijjat papad
Sek ke khayein
Tal ke khayein…
Khurram Kharram

This 30-second ad for papad (a thin, crisp, round flatbread) went on to become one of the most catchy jingles in the 90s, a time when television sets had just made inroads in middle-class Indian households.

This jingle, with a human-sized rabbit, was my only saving grace when I attended birthday parties as a 10-year-old. Where parents urged their kids to their sing or dance on a Bollywood number, I would proudly narrate the Khurram Kharram jingle that I had diligently learnt. 

Two decades later, I still know the jingle by heart. 

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If this desi jingle cemented its place in the audience’s mind, the humble product won millions of hearts. Coming from a Gujarati family, I can vouch that no meal is complete without Lijjat Papad, which come in lip-smacking flavours with ingredients such as urad, red chillies, garlic, moong, Punjabi masala, pepper and jeera.

This brand was founded by seven Gujarati homemakers at a meagre loan of Rs 80. As per a report by Femina, it grew exponentially, to a business worth Rs 1,600 crores.

Here is its fascinating history.

How It All Began

The year is 1959. It is summer in Bombay (now, Mumbai). Seven Gujarati-speaking women are frantically talking to each other on a terrace.

The agenda of the informal meet is to reduce the financial strain on their respective families by starting a means of livelihood. They are semi-literate and have no experience in running a company.

So, they decide to bank on their culinary skills of papad-making with a hope to earn a stable income. They begin rolling the papads and exit the terrace with four packets.

Jaswantiben Popat, Jayaben Vithalani, Parvatiben Thodani, Ujamben Kundalia, Banuben Tanna, Chutadben Gawade and Laguben Gokani march to the local market, sell the papads, and set the ball rolling. 

“We were semi-literate, which restricted our chances to get jobs. But we realised our papad-making expertise could be used to earn small amounts of money to help our husbands reduce their financial responsibility,” Jaswantiben tells BBC.

To help them market the papads, Purushottam Damodar Dattani began mentoring them. He went from one shop to another and finally sold the papads to a local store called Anandji Premji & Company in Girgaon Chowpatty. 

Speaking to The Better India on why Anandji decided to trust a group of relatively inexperienced women, his son, Himmatbhai, says, “My father found the women very genuine and hardworking. Dattaniji demanded an advance with confidence and that impressed my father. Dattaniji himself spent the day in our shop and sold all the packets in a few hours. That was the beginning of our relationship with the co-operative, and today, we procure close to 25 kilos of Lijjat Papad daily.” 

Jaswantiben says that they sold one kilo on the first day and earned eight annas. She tells National Geographic, “Next day two kilos fetched a rupee. Women in our locality found it profitable and through word of mouth, we started building a team.”

In the next 3-4 months, the team grew to 200 and the co-operative opened its second branch in Wadala. The annual sales came up to Rs 6,000, a big amount back in 1959.

Looking at the acceptance of their product in the market, the ‘seven sisters’ borrowed money from Chhaganlal Karamsi Parekh, who also became their mentor. Fondly known as ‘Chhagan Bappa’, he was a noted social worker who served in multiple relief operations, including the earthquakes in Assam and Kutch in the 1950s.

The small team did not spend resources on hiring a marketing team, publicist or workforce, and instead channelled all its energy towards ‘quality consciousness’. 

As more women expressed their interest to join, the founders decided it was time to acquire a statutory recognition. In 1966, they registered as a Society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 and the Bombay Public Trusts Act, 1950. It was in the same year that the Khadi & Village Industries Commission labelled it as ‘Village Industry’. 

This was a turning point for the founders.

Almost 62 years later, the venture that began with seven women has now turned into India’s oldest all-female cooperative that employs close to 45,000 women.

In 1968, Lijjat established its first branch outside Maharashtra, in Valod, Gujarat. As per the website, the pan-India venture presently has 82 branches, and exports to 15 countries. This papad venture became well known for its consistency in taste and quality. 

Besides its star product, the institution also offers other products like masalas, gehu atta (wheat flour), chapatis (wheat flatbreads), appalams, detergent powder, and laundry soap. 

“One of the principles is to ensure that only the best quality of raw materials are utilised in the papad, and there is no compromise on this aspect. Having maintained this quality in the last 60 years is a major reason for our success…..The lessons to be drawn from the Institution are about winning over the customer’s goodwill by offering good quality of products. This is the secret of the Institution’s success,” Swati Paradkar, President of Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, told Inter-Actions

This principle also reflected in the recruiting process. There are no prerequisites except that every woman has to abide by the quality guidelines.

The Secret Behind its Consistency in Taste & Quality

Due to weather conditions, topography, water quality and so on, the taste of raw materials differ in every state. Thus, all raw materials are purchased from one place and distributed to all branches. This way, the taste is the same, and the final product is consistent, irrespective of the region. 

While the urad dal (a variety of lentil) comes from Myanmar, asafoetida (hing) is imported from Afghanistan, and black pepper comes from Kerala. Hing, which is also a staple ingredient in Indian kitchens, is carefully sorted and crushed into powder. 

For black pepper, they follow a unique crushing process. The powder is filtered through a channi (sieve) and the remains are grounded in the second round. To attain perfection, the powder is filtered again, this time, with the help of a table fan. The powder is transferred from one vessel to another in front of the fan, blowing away the lighter pepper pods. 

This process happens only in Vashi and Nasik. The mix of hing and pepper powder is added to the flour and saltwater is prepared in the final step. After this, dough is prepared and distributed among the employees. Everyone is given a standard base and rolling pin to ensure the equal size of papads from every region. 

In terms of quality, branch members often pay their staff members surprise visits at their homes to check if the papads are being rolled and dried in proper hygienic conditions. Finally, the products are tested and coded in their laboratory in Mumbai.

Women Empowerment

Lijjat Papad was acing ‘work from home’, long before it became an accepted form of work culture. A major reason behind this was to give women financial independence without requiring them to step outside their houses. This option allowed a homemaker to balance her family with a source of income. 

Those who did not have enough space at home were asked to check the papad quality and packaging at their branches.   

Employees referred to as bens (sister) begin their work as early as 4.30 a.m. Women working at the Lijjat branch knead dough that is collected by another group of women who roll them into papads at their respective homes. A mini-bus picks the members from the closest point of residence to the branch and back home.

A Central Managing Committee in Mumbai with a staff of 21 members looks after the overall monitoring. 

Even after so many years, this trailblazing organisation has stuck to its roots — to create employment opportunities for needy women. No wonder mass production through machine-operated systems is a big no. By not replacing women with technology, the co-operative ensures a stable livelihood. 

“Not only self-employment, self-reliance, self-empowerment and self-dignity are equally important. The movement started by Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad (SMGULP), represents the true strength of Indian women. The women, who are a part of Lijjat, weren’t literate before, but now they know the importance of education, especially of their children. This in itself is a big development,” says eminent scientist Raghunath Mashelkar.

Every member of the co-operative is treated as a family member, enjoying several benefits.

For example, every ben is allowed to choose her area of work. An employee can also become a part of the managing committee through a democratic process of elections. Other benefits include applying for a loan, opting for Lijjat scholarships for their children, and basic literacy programmes in every branch. 

Their efforts are appreciated and rewarded by the company. For example, in 2002, the employees in Rajkot got an incentive of Rs 4,000 each. Meanwhile, bens at Mumbai and Thane branches were given 5-gram gold coins.

“Lijjat provides economic opportunities through domestic activity. Once involved in this activity, women acquire confidence and status as they make money in a respectable manner. The more enterprising, responsible, and experienced member-sisters climb the administrative ladder. Lijjat exemplifies a remarkable way of making leaders out of ordinary women,” reads a paragraph from Empowerment Case Studies: Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad.

Minimalism Always Works 

If you observe the arresting ad, you will find that there are no celebrities or larger-than-life shooting locations urging you to buy the papads. It is a very simple and minimalistic ad that leverages just one thing — how a papad can come to your rescue any time of the day. The bunny, of course, is an intriguing addition. 

Likewise, the venture has consciously stayed away from brand launches, social media presence and extravagant celebrations. Their only focus is that consumers and bens are satisfied at the end of the day. 

Such minimalism is rare in today’s tech-savvy times where one is bombarded with ads. 

The Evergreen Product That Reeks of Nostalgia, Success & Self Reliance

Have you ever wondered why Lijjat Papad continues to rule the papad sector despite several competitors? Besides evoking nostalgia, there is a sense of comfort and trust that comes with those packets. 

“It reminds me that even though change is constant and necessary for evolution, we have something to be grateful for. Lijjat Papad is one snack that never disappoints,” says my brother, Ronak. 

Lijjat Papad is also Mumbai-based Nirmala Nair’s go-to snack every time she feels hungry. “Having a busy schedule does not always give me time to cook. So, I chop salads and lay them on the papad. It hardly takes five minutes to prepare a snack that is tasty and healthy.” 

Apart from its consumers, the brand has left an everlasting mark as a proud swadeshi company that has empowered thousands of lives. This papad brand has successfully managed to be a silent yet integral part of everyone’s life in more ways than one.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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