Rolling out a revolution: 62 years of Lijjat Papad
The Lijjat women were working from home long before the pandemic hit. Almost exactly 62 years ago, Jaswantiben Popat and six local housewives gathered on a terrace in Girgaum, Mumbai, to work out a way to supplement the family income. They were semi-literate, but they knew how to run a household.
Each woman brought one ingredient – urad dal flour, pepper, asafoetida, spices and seasonings, and went to work. They mixed the dough for papads and rolled them out as a team to sell in the neighbourhood. They sold four packets and earned 8 annas (or half a rupee). The next day, they made twice as many and doubled their earnings, splitting all profits.
Soon, more women joined in. In three months, at least 200 women were rolling papads. They branched out across the city, eventually expanded into other states, recruited and trained young women to be rollers. Six years later they registered the enterprise, forming what still is the most unlikely of business models.
Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad is India’s oldest all-woman co-operative. It now employs 45,000 women across 17 states, and is a ₹1,600 crore entity, selling over 4 billion papads annually, in addition to hand-rolled chapatis, masalas and detergents. It still offers jobs to women with no formal skills, shares profits, and has persistently steered clear of technological advancements, even though machines can roll out papads ten times faster, at a lower cost. Popat, now 91, was awarded the Padma Shri this year.
Lijjat’s success story is all set to play out in a movie directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar. Karram Kurram is named after the brand’s iconic 1990s jingle, which featured their one-time mascot, a pink puppet bunny. But as Swati Paradkar, the co-operative’s president knows, it’s not the bottomline that’s the highlight, it’s the long-running operation itself. “It gives women the flexibility to carry out their household chores and look after their children while also working and earning,” says Paradkar.
Paradkar, 61, was ten years old when her mother responded to an ad in the paper and started rolling papads for Lijjat. Growing up, she assisted her mother in her rolling tasks before school. “After I finished my school exams, Lilaben, the head of the Bandra branch where my family and friends worked, asked me if I wanted to take on the responsibility of making the payments,” recalls Paradkar.
Paradkar took the job, her own experiences from papad-making helping her understand who was at the heart of the business. When salesmen came to collect the ready packets, she would assist the branch head in keeping the accounts, and monitoring the supply chain. “My family didn’t have the money for me to study further, so when they offered me a senior position in another branch I took it,” she says. She worked her way up the cooperative, eventually taking over as president of the 21-member committee that oversees the entire operation, each of whom has a similar career trajectory.
Lijjat, meanwhile, still operates in largely the same way. They still recruit women through newspaper ads. Everyone joins as a roller, getting trained on sizing and quality standards, picking up the dough from a nearby centre, and rolling and drying the papads at home, turning them in the next day and collecting their payment immediately. Buses ferry women to and from the centres. Much of the process involves doing things by hand. “We don’t touch this side of the operations,” says Paradkar. “If we start using machines, we won’t be able to generate employment for so many women.”
Like Paradkar, Manjula S, 44, started out by accompanying her mother to the Lijjat centre. She started officially rolling papads for them when she was 27. “The atmosphere here is amicable. There is unity among the women, who are accommodating and helpful,” she says.
Like everything else, the pandemic affected papad-making too. “We didn’t work for two months, which led to tough financial situations in the homes of the rollers.” In the cooperative spirit, the managing committee deposited small sums of money into each the member’s bank account. “When we started operations again, all our branches were sanitized and the sisters were called to the centres on alternate days,” says Paradkar.
She’s excited about the movie, she says, but only because it will spread word of the work Lijjat has long been doing. “More people will now know about the brand,” Paradkar says. “And hopefully we will be able to cast a wider net in the future.”