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HomeOpinionHow the wet grinder revolutionised Coimbatore's industrial hub

How the wet grinder revolutionised Coimbatore’s industrial hub

In 2015, there were over 700 units in the Coimbatore district alone, producing over 75,000 wet grinders each month and employing more than 20,000 people directly.

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The electoral promise and subsequent delivery of a free mixie, and wet grinder made by J. Jayalalitha in 2011 is often cited as a classic example of ‘freebie’ culture gone amuck. After all, while other freebies such as bicycles for female students, subsidised rice and gas cylinder have proven socio-economic benefits and can be justified as welfare interventions, wet grinders are hardly an essential good that enhances social welfare. Yet, the story of the modern wet grinder and its adoption is a fascinating one of how indigenous innovation, entrepreneurial ambitions and state support intersected to create a flourishing cottage industry and cluster.

A wet grinder is a mechanised food processing device used to prepare the batter for traditional South Indian staples like idli, dosa and vada by grinding food grains. It was invented in 1955 by a Coimbatore-based high-school dropout, P. Sabapathy while he was working as an apprentice in an industrial unit. Sabapathy’s pioneering innovation was improved upon by a host of self-taught local inventors, and aspiring businessmen around Coimbatore like Krishnamurthy of Lakshmi Grinders who began commercial production, and Duraiswamy who introduced the Santha tilting wet grinder, which improved the consistency and quality of the batter. Constant experimentation and tinkering with technology helped refine and create scores of newer, and more sophisticated models of mechanised batter-making devices that are now ubiquitous in South India and created a unique industrial cluster in Coimbatore, with little support in the initial years from the State.

‘Freebie’ boom

The mechanised wet grinder eliminated the tremendous drudgery involved in preparing batter in South Indian cuisine that involved overnight soaking followed by manual grinding and pounding of grains using a granite mortar and pestle. This freed up a significant amount of a married woman’s time allowing her to pursue other activities and introduced greater dietary diversity into household consumption.

This remarkable contraption contributed significantly to the growth of Coimbatore as an industrial production hub. While other parts of India started producing wet grinders, the Coimbatore Wet Grinder remains the most well-known in terms of quality and was accorded the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2005. In 2015, the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises estimated that there were over 700 small units in the Coimbatore district alone, producing over 75,000 wet grinders each month (about 80 per cent of the total production in the country) and employing more than 20,000 people directly.

Given its long history of production and the entrepreneurial zeal of its manufacturers, choosing the Coimbatore Wet Grinder as the district’s signature ODOP product, under the One District One Product Initiative seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, it was one of the first 106 products shortlisted for promotion under the scheme by Invest India, and the Ministry of Commerce.

The Jayalalitha government’s 2011 announcement of the distribution of free two-litre ‘Amma wet grinders’ in Tamil Nadu resulted in a structural change in the Coimbatore industrial cluster. In 2011, the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation awarded tenders to 12 manufacturers–10 from Coimbatore who were required to provide over 1.85 crore wet grinders to ration card holders across Tamil Nadu. This unprecedented demand for the grinders resulted in the hitherto unorganised micro-units of Coimbatore combining resources to form a consortium, Coimbatore Wet Grinders Manufacturers Association (COWMA) and massive investments in increasing production capacity to meet the state’s requirements. The unorganised micro unit industry saw Rs 2,800 crores per annum in turnover during the “Amma wet grinder” distribution period.

 In fact, this one ‘freebie’ announcement alone resulted in a massive boom and revealed the weaknesses in the supply chain. Soon, there was a shortage of everything from polished granite stone to a shortage in adequate electric motors. This resulted in the import of motors from China to meet the demand.

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Hard to sell

By the time the scheme wound down in 2015 when the new Model Code of Conduct before the assembly elections came into place, the demand for wet grinders had maxed out. Now, practically every household in Tamil Nadu had a two-litre wet grinder, and Amma grinders were even being smuggled for sale to nearby Andhra Pradesh. The industrial units which had invested in expansion were left with vast unutilised capacity.

The Coimbatore Wet Grinder has limited practical application–making batter of a certain consistency from grains. It is not widely used in North Indian cuisine, and is unheard of overseas, except amongst South Indian diaspora in Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

While the Coimbatore Wet Grinder was the initially declared ODOP product of the district, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade and Invest India have struggled to find overseas markets to promote such a specific-use product, leading to a rethink of their ODOP product.

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Innovators of Coimbatore

As late as August 2021, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry continued to list the wet grinder as a product targeted for export promotion. Meanwhile, industry bodies and chambers of commerce in Coimbatore realised the need to tinker with their business plan and began redesigning their units to focus on other ancillary products. The ever-enterprising entrepreneurs of Coimbatore, realising that the electric motors fitted into wet grinders could be used for a variety of other home appliances with wider applications, lobbied for a change in the district’s ODOP product.

By June 2022, in a submission to the Rajya Sabha Standing Committee on Commerce set up to examine the rollout of the ODOP Initiative—Coimbatore’s signature product definition had been expanded to focus on wider range-motor pumps and other consumer electronic products. While the Amma Wet Grinder ‘freebie’ scheme resulted in an unintentional boom, it also revealed gaps in their capabilities-particularly, the fact that they had to depend on China for motors. The ingenuity of Coimbatore manufacturers allowed them to sense a new opportunity, reinvent their existing, strong industrial base and churn out related products meeting evolving demands.

District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product (ODOP) scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy works in public policy and the development sector, and has worked on various district level programs and initiatives. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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