By Humra Laeeq
Sure, GST is supposed to revitalise the Indian economy and make the country progress economically. Sure, it is supposed to benefit the average citizen. Sure, the tax on sanitary napkins has gone down under the GST from an earlier 14.5 percent to 12 percent currently. However, that’s not the debate. The immutable fact remains that such a commodity remains to be when it could have been exempted by the Finance Ministry while they are working on such economic restructuring. Were we wrong in expecting fair concern for Indian women from an all-male 31 member GST Council?
On November 15, 2017, the Delhi High Court questioned this very Council on its fair decision making. The jury was hearing the petition filed by Zarmina Israr Khan, a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University questioning the levying of GST on sanitary napkins. Her plea called the taxing on sanitary napkins “illegal and unconstitutional.” While the controversy on ‘pad-tax’ has been an ongoing phenomenon since the inception of GST, Israr Khan tackled the issue in a new light. The argument got strengthened by citing the exemption of the seemingly less important and non-essential product such as sindoor, bindi and kajal. The High Court bench said sanitary napkins should be categorised as a necessity and there is no explanation for taxing. When the counter-affidavit filed by the Centre responded on economic technical issues, the bench said that the Centre was simply manipulating the figures.
Some light on the ‘pad-tax’ debate
Israr Khan mentions how the petition was filed for benefitting all women, particularly those who belong to the lower economic strata of the society. Because these women face affordability issues, they are discouraged from buying expensive pads and neglect the necessities of their menstrual health. Sharmada Shastry, who has worked intensely with Pasand talks of her experience with rural women when she tried convincing young girls of using hygienic and safe napkins instead of cloth. The teacher of the class responded by saying that “using cloth pads over expensive napkins would reduce the burden on their parents who also have to save for their weddings.” Apart from these reasons, a stark proportion of school-going girls choose to be absent six days a month precisely because of reasons like embarrassment, hygiene, security and comfort.
Are shaving creams ‘luxury’ or ‘necessity’?
The debate over its taxation is met with a further clash. While social activists are working for the betterment of women across disadvantaged groups, men’s activists in the namesake of ‘gender equality’ are vouching for tax-free shaving creams which they see as ‘essential’ and applicable to all men. How valid is this argument? Can we place shaving creams along the likes of sanitary napkins?
On a principle level, the comparison between sanitary napkins and shaving creams falls the moment we think of medical necessity. The US Food and Drug Administration categorises this commodity as a “medical device”. When it comes to shaving creams, the argument is that they are utilised by a huge majority and the daily requirement of which does not make them a ‘luxury’. Even for once we agree regarding the consumer base and its daily usage, we need to think of what consequences the future holds if these people do not get access to them. In the absence of shaving creams, the average male citizen can use alternatives which do not pose direct medical harm. In the absence of napkins, women who cannot afford them use alternatives like sand, unsanitised cloth and ash which are not only infectious for the body but also can be reasons for embarrassment. Neither is a full beard a cause of unavoidable embarrassment nor does it have creams as the sole, safe solution. In that case, a large number of urban male populations use creams as a luxury alternative, whereas rural males use razors and scissors and such.
Where is the compromise worth it?
Given this medical need, we can perhaps economically compromise for sanitary pad taxation. When questioned to remove the pad-tax, the Centre mentioned how the napkin industries would incur economic losses in terms of import/export. Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore, who invented low-cost sanitary napkin machinery in 2006, described GST taxation as ‘foolish’. In a statement, he said “I do not think a complete tax ban on napkins would incur huge revenue losses for the government. They are giving more importance to symbolic items like sindoor which has no direct impact on the health and well-being of a woman.” We perhaps cannot or should not exempt shaving creams from tax because it would result in economic losses unfound on a sound, medical, absolutely necessary basis.
Recent data from the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 mentions that the percentage of women between the ages of 15 and 24 years using sanitary napkins during their menstrual cycles in India is an overall 57.6 percent (77.5 percent in urban areas and 48.2 percent in rural India). About half of India’s rural women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to hygienic menstrual practices which are absolutely necessary and cannot be called luxury items, unlike shaving creams or deodorants. The fine line is drawn between ‘daily usage’ and ‘necessity’ is precisely the unavoidable need of a particular commodity. While the men can do with grown or trimmed facial hair, women have no resort to their embarrassment especially in a country like India where menstruation is highly stigmatized.
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