The Goods and Services Tax (GST) on sanitary pads has become a matter of argument with political parties, activists, women groups, students and citizens accusing the government of neglecting the basic needs of women across the rural and urban areas of the country.
At the midnight hour of July 1, 2017, the then President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Goods and Services Tax (GST) at the historic central hall of the Parliament. The new tax was to simplify the tax system, get rid of a chain of different indirect taxes, enhancing the ease of doing business by creating a national market system across India. This was believed to be India’s biggest tax reform since independence. But the government missed some reforms that could have been made for the women of new India. The government had the chance to completely reform the taxation system of India. They should have made sure that the essential goods and services are not taxed.
The different sections of society are marking their protests with their dissent on the new indirect tax on sanitary pads. Students from the University of Kerala on July 13, sent sanitary napkins with the message ‘Bleed without fear, bleed without tax’ to Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. This was to mark their protest against the imposition of 12% tax on sanitary napkins under the GST. The protest was organized by some activists of Students Federation of India (SFI) and All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). This was to mark the start of a pan India campaign called ‘Bleed without fear, bleed without tax’, as written on the napkins.
“The campaign will be held till July 14, will see women sending pads with a message written against the taxation to Mr Jaitley,” Prashant Mukherjee, State secretary, Students’ Federation of India (SFI), informed The Hindu. The student organization also demanded the installation of sanitary pad vending machines in educational institutions. Student groups across the country have held many such protests against this imposition.
Clarifying reports of tax incidence on sanitary napkins under GST, a finance ministry statement said, “the tax incidence on this item before and after GST is the same or less.” The statement added, “in pre-GST, they attracted concessional excise duty of 6% and 5% VAT with estimated total tax incidence on sanitary napkins was 13.68%. Therefore, 12% GST rate had been provided for sanitary napkins.”
The Delhi High Court on Tuesday issued a notice to the finance ministry and the GST Council on hearing a plea against the tax imposition. A bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar asked for responses from the ministry and the GST Council by November 15 on the public interest litigation and also asked the petitioner to supply a brief note on the representations made to the centre.
Zarmina Israr Khan, a PhD scholar in African studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a petitioner in this case, told the media that discriminatory and illegal treatment was being meted out to women by an “unconstitutional and illegal imposition of 12% tax” on sanitary napkins. Amit George, the lawyer of the petitioner told the bench that 12% tax makes no distinction between high and low cost sanitary napkins.
The Bombay High court also issued notice to both state and central government on hearing a plea for exemption of GST on sanitary napkin. The Shetty Woman Welfare Foundation, city based NGO had approached the court on June 29, to exempt GST on sanitary napkin to ensure access to basic menstrual hygiene products.
Under the GST regime, condoms and other contraceptives continue to have 0% tax levied on them. This was a good decision taken by the GST Council, keeping in mind population control and the unmet needs of women. But on the other hand, sanitary napkins which are very important for a woman’s functioning is under the 12% tax slab. It is true that the taxation on menstrual hygiene products has gone down under GST, from the earlier scenario where sanitary pads were taxed up to 14.5% it’s now come down to 12%. But this time when the government took it upon itself to revise the indirect tax system in the country, it had the opportunity to discontinue the taxing on menstrual hygiene products. The government seems to have missed the chance. It has though gone ahead and exempted items like sindoor, bangles, and bindis of tax, deeming them necessary for a woman’s survival. It seems that the government believes that these tokens of marriage are more necessary than the menstrual hygiene products.
A study by AC Nielson published in the International Research Journal of Social Sciences shows that among the women who do not use sanitary napkins, Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) is 70% more common than in those who use the products. The study suggests that only 12% of women in their menstrual age use sanitary napkins, and over 88% depend on the alternative unhygienic ways like non-sanitized clothes, ashes and husk sand. In North India over 30% of girls stop going to school after the start of their menstrual cycle due to the lack of adequate sanitary products. 83% of these girls come from families that cannot afford sanitary pads. The problems of social taboos, where even talking about menstruation and walking freely during the menstruation period are restricted because of the notions of purity and pollution associated with menstruation, add to the problem.
Insufficient menstrual protection makes many adolescent girls miss school for up to five days a month that is 50 days a year. ‘BetiBachao, BetiPadhao’ (Save girl child, educate girl child), is a social campaign by the Indian government that aims to generate awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services intended for girls. But it seems that the government is less aware of the reasons behind girls dropping out of schools. They are less interested in breaking the barriers preventing girls from going to schools.
The government must rethink its campaigns and their policies which are contradicting its supposed intention. It must look at the fact that need of menstrual hygiene is more than that of condoms and other contraceptives and also than that of marriage items like sindoor, bangles, and bindis. The importance of the rights to health is more important than population control. The government must take steps to increase access to menstrual hygiene products among women in order to improve their health and protect their rights under Article 21 (Right to life and personal liberty). Sex can be a choice, Marriage can be a choice, but menstruation is not a choice.