New Delhi: Last month, a video of a senior Bihar IAS officer, Harjot Kaur Bumrah, scolding a girl for demanding free sanitary napkins caught the ire of the nation on social media.
The bureaucrat was conducting a workshop in Bihar when the exchange happened. “Tomorrow, you attain the age of family planning and would want the government to provide you ‘nirodh’ too. Why would I have a habit of taking everything for free from the government? What is the need for it?” responded a visibly angry Bumrah.
For the uninitiated, when Bumrah said ‘nirodh‘, she meant condoms. Much like photocopy and Xerox, internet searches and Google, Nirodh is synonymous with ‘condom’ in the country.
Nirodh is the government-manufactured condom brand, which was first used by India as part of its National Programme for Family Planning — one of the world’s earliest and biggest programmes — which took off in 1952.
From Kamraj to Nirodh
Population growth may no longer cause alarm in India as the country’s total birth rates have fallen below replacement level. Yes, we will surpass China’s total population in a few years, but an increasing birth rate isn’t a burning issue anymore.
But six decades ago, in the 1960s, the picture was very different. India was a poor nation with too many mouths to feed, and the population was growing at a staggering rate. In 1964, India had a population of 470 million.
This is when the country introduced its first condom. Reports suggest that the government wanted to name it ‘Kamraj’ but because the then Congress president was K Kamraj, the condoms ended up being christened ‘Nirodh’.
The government first decided to distribute condoms for free in India in 1963. India had imported 400 million packets from the US, Japan and Korea. In 1968, the government decided to sell imported condoms under the name ‘Nirodh’. A year later, India set up Hindustan Latex Limited in Kerala and started manufacturing condoms in 1969. It was part of a quest to produce high-quality condoms for the National Family Planning Programme.
However, condoms weren’t an alien product, they were available in Indian markets since the 1940s, courtesy of imports from UK group SSL Limited. But their usage was almost negligible. According to research dating back to 1973, only four per cent of couples had ever used a condom.
Family planning was the need of the hour, and condoms were a natural recourse. But for most Indians, the ‘rubber’ was unfamiliar territory. Adopting condoms was a difficult contraception method to market since the onus fell on the man, who might view it as an intrusive method that hindered sex. The National Family Health Survey 2019-21 shows only 1 in 10 men use condoms in India even today, while female sterilisation continues to be on the rise.
So, how do you get people to buy what they don’t know they need? There was an easy answer – by making it cheap.
In the initial stages of the project, a packet of three pieces was sold for 15 paise, more than 80 per cent below the market value. It wasn’t an unsuccessful endeavour. By March 1972, the monthly use of condoms in India had touched 7 million and Nirodh constituted a whopping 92 per cent of the market share.
Unimaginative, crude marketing
But Nirodh had fatal packaging and marketing problems which later led to its doom. Nobody wanted to bring the unsexy condoms to their bedroom. For over 45 years, a Nirodh packet was just a white bland sheet with red text. An article in India Today described the condom as ‘unappealing and depressing’.
And despite limited competition and about 80 per cent of people who used condoms at that time bought Nirodh – it hadn’t managed to fulfill the basic agenda of the Family Planning Programme. A vast majority of the population, even the targeted groups, were not adopting the contraception method.
Later on, in the early 1970s, six of the country’s largest consumer marketing companies – including familiar names like Lipton Tea, Tata Oil Mills, and India Tobacco Company (ITC)– had been instructed to distribute Nirodh alongside their own products. It was a shrewd move on part of the government, as the marketing responsibility wouldn’t fall entirely on the firms.
However, being given a cheap condom along with a packet of tea or a box of cigarettes was not enough. People wanted more – Nirodh’s antiseptic packaging and the dour term didn’t help its cause.
As the use of condoms remained poor, India entered a dark chapter in its population control bid with Sanjay Gandhi’s mass sterilization campaign. In 1976 alone, over 6.2 million men were forcibly sterilised by the government. Condoms as a form of contraception were no longer deemed a priority.
‘Nirodh’ is a weighty word – when translated literally, it means prevention. From the get-go, the name had a negative connotation. Former global counsel of pharma giant Cipla, Murali Neelakantan, stated, “In our cultural context, a married couple is frequently asked – ‘when is the good news?’ A brand that was advertised as the opposite would not have many takers.”
Advertising executive Dinesh Khanna, who worked with leading agencies like Lintas and Enterprise in the 1980s, noted that marketing by public sector undertakings (PSUs) was generally unimaginative and crude. “Not too much thought went into them. This meant popular perception was that the products were of lower quality. Though, this kind of responsibility [Nirodh] could only have been undertaken by the government,” he said.
The brand needed a major overhaul. Instead of delivering neatly packed mass-media advertisements in the 1980s, Nirodh ads reportedly “gave no relevant information about its use or even availability”.
A decision to rebrand it was floated as late as 2015. The government wanted to revamp the plain jane condoms as ‘sensuous’. A three-member Parliament committee deliberated putting stickers of couples making love or playing violin on the packet. But perhaps it was too late, Nirodh’s brand image as a low-quality condom couldn’t be undone. In contrast, private companies like KamaSutra, Durex, and Skore marketed condoms as an ultra-sexy product in various designs, textures and flavours.
Govt’s timid marketing
Nirodh was never marketed as a sensuous product. Even old ads didn’t move on to use it as anything more than a tool for family planning. One ad showed a couple holding hands on a beach and the text said, “The right condom for spacing your family. For 1.50 rs”.
In 2012, a photograph of a Nirodh Deluxe ad on a wall in Varanasi depicted a dancing couple informing that the use of the product protects them from HIV, unwanted pregnancy, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
And that was the problem with the brand, the government was always too reluctant to associate condoms with ‘pleasure’, which is also the number one criticism regarding their use even a product in general — that they reduce the fun of sex. Private condom companies understood it and focussed on advertising them as sex-enhancing products, something the government never did.
However, a 2010 ad changed that. The ad choreographed with playful music showed a couple teasing each other before entering the house. But the man loses his Nirodh condom before entering. And even though the woman invites him inside, he chooses to chase his condoms down a flight of stairs. It concludes with a senior couple looking at him in approval and the voice-over says: “Jo condom ka saath na chodhe, wahi hai mukkaddar ka sikandar“. (The one who never lets go of his condom, is the true winner.)
‘Attractive, not erotic’
In 2015, a health ministry official indicated that Nirodh would be getting a much-needed facelift. “We hope the new packaging will make a difference. The committee may recommend a new name for Nirodh too,” the official had said.
Nirodh then became Nirodh Asha, but the change was removed after a slew of protests by Asha workers, who refused to distribute them in several districts.
The wrapper, however, was given its promised upgrade along with a ministry warning – “The images will be attractive, not erotic,” said an official. But they soon backtracked.
Today, Nirodh’s packaging, as seen on Amazon, depicts a couple surrounded by candles on the verge of kissing. Forty-one per cent of reviewers have given it five stars.
“I feel like the competitors of this brand are putting in negative reviews to make it look bad. Whereas, the truth is that this product is as good as most premium brands, at a fraction of the price,” read one of the reviews.