GST on sanitary napkins: Does Indian government think period blood is a luxury?

Women, after all, do not choose to menstruate.

 |  4-minute read |   12-07-2017
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India is a land of irony and contradictions. Here it is dangerous to talk to a stranger but perfectly fine to marry one! Ours is a country where we would rather spend more on our daughters' weddings than on their education and/or health.

Our government is no exception and this is the reason that while there are no taxes on human hair waste used for wigs, 12 per cent Goods & Services Tax is levied on sanitary napkins!

Even frozen semen is tax-free, along with the meat of donkeys, horses, hinnies and mules, chilled or fresh.

Does that indicate our government wants to promote a diet with donkey, horse and mule meat? 

In a country where an estimated 70 per cent women cannot afford sanitary napkins and only 12 per cent of the 355 million menstruating women use them, levying a luxury tax of 12 per cent on it further increases the gap between women and menstrual hygiene, especially in the rural areas. Is the government living with the notion that only rich women bleed?

Is sanitary napkin a luxury or is it a necessity? Well, most of us women going through periods every month would agree with the latter. Unfortunately, our legislators disagree.

sanitary-pads_071217060959.jpgPhoto: Twitter/ Anand Ranganathan

In India, items considered necessities, such as food (including luxury food items like horse and ass meat) and pharma supplies, are exempted from taxes. Even a number of items like the waste of human hair used for wigs are tax-exempt, but not sanitary napkins. Since most of the human hair waste is exported and has negligible domestic use, one wonders how it is an essential commodity!

The way the government has been defending the 12 per cent GST against the earlier 13.68 per cent tax rate only amplifies its negligent and thoughtless approach towards menstrual hygiene at a time 88 per cent menstruating women have no access to sanitary pads.

Isn't the duty of the government to revolutionise the tax regime when the nation wants it? What happened to the PM's assurance on Women's Day that the ruling dispensation at the Centre is committed to empower "Nari Shakti"?

Another argument by the GST council is that "the raw material used for manufacturing sanitary napkins attract between 12 to 18 percent GST, which would mean that manufacturers will pay more tax than they collect from customers".

It appears the GST council is neglecting the market penetration (market share) of sanitary napkins in the country. While emerging markets such as Indonesia and Thailand have more than 50 per cent penetration and Kenya has more than 30 per cent penetration, sanitary napkins only have 16 per cent market penetration in India.

Evidently, only if the level increases can the manufacturers make huge profits, but the finance ministry - instead of making provisions for accelerating their numbers - is arguing that the tax on the final product will help them compensate for the raw material tax.

What would these manufacturers prefer - huge profits through a huge market share of 30 per cent or more, or negligible compensation from the government-imposed tax on their final product?

Any manufacturing company looking for long-term profits would arguably choose the former.

Kenya was the first nation to do away with the tax on sanitary pads in 2004 followed by Canada and Ireland. Only a month ago, Mauritius did away with the tax on tampons.

If an African country - which doesn't match India's growth - can sustain without taxing an essential commodity used by women, why can't India?

Monthly periods are no luxury. Women, after all, do not choose to menstruate. It isn't even an extravagant purchase for a woman who chooses the sanitary napkin over a piece of cloth.

Besides, not using sanitary napkins can lead to several health risks and hazards.

By taxing essential items like sanitary napkins, our government is capitalising on the misogynist discourse as well as period shame that further makes us fear our menstrual cycles. Isn't that a double-edged sword for Indian women?

GST on sanitary napkins highlights the ugly fact that "women" are being penalised for "being women". In a society that proactively targets inequality, women still make less than their male counterparts in various industries. And then we are bombarded with a tax on a product which is exclusively used by us, women.

Is the government forgetting that sanitary napkin are more than an urban requirement or do they believe that rural, menstruating women can do without it?

We claim to be a progressive and advancing society compared to other developing countries, but ignore the negative ramifications of taxing a critical commodity like the sanitary napkin.

PS: Exempting the condom, another essential commodity, from taxes is a good move by the GST council, and exempting sanitary pads will be an even better one!

Also read: GST on sanitary napkins but not on condoms: Taxed for being women?

Writer

Deepti Verma Deepti Verma @universal_rover

The writer is co-founder of NationalViews.com

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