The gender insensitive character of Goods and Services Tax (GST) is evident from the fact that the new tax regime imposes 12 per cent tax on sanitary napkins, perhaps, perceiving them to be as a sort of luxury goods.
Affordability of such menstrual protection tools is critical for women's health and are, therefore, absolutely essential commodities. Increasing the prices of sanitary napkins goes against the objective of promoting healthier menstrual hygiene practices.
Estimates suggest that hardly one-third of girls use sanitary napkins, revealing the importance of ensuring their universal access. Lack of access to healthier and such safer sanitary products is also the reason for disproportionately higher levels of school dropouts and lower levels of school attendance among girls.
Estimates imply that one in four girls drops out of school when they start menstruating. Girls miss as much as 20 per cent of the school year due to menstruation. Besides health and hygiene, affordable sanitary napkins are integral to realising the goal of right to education which is now a fundamental right.
Thus, the higher GST on sanitary pads repudiates the claims to Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao. It’s absurd to note that a nation that talks of Swachh Bharat will now have a higher tax on such basic tools of menstrual hygiene.
Official claim is that 12 per cent tax on sanitary napkins is to protect local manufacturers. A 12% GST rate is at par with its earlier tax burden including central and state taxes.
Some of the raw materials used such as polymers attract a higher 18% rate which makes it hard to reduce the tax rate on the finished item, without adding to the cost of producers.
While companies can claim credit for tax paid on intermediate goods, a huge differential between the tax rates on intermediate goods or inputs and that on the finished product would mean that they end up with tax credits that they can’t use. However, such a logic cannot wish away the simple fact that sanitary napkins are still out of reach for most Indian women.
It is estimated that 355 million Indians are post-pubescent and pre-menopausal females among whom little over 10 per cent have access to these modern sanitary pads.
The rest rely on cloth, synthetic materials, leaves, sand, ash, even cow dung cakes, which cause serious health disorders. A study by AC Nielsen shows that among women who do not use sanitary pads Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) is 70% more common than those who have access to it.
If bindi and bangles can be tax-free, why not sanitary napkins? An aid to menstrual hygiene cannot fall within luxury goods, and should be exempt from taxes.
The imposition of higher GST on sanitary napkins reflects disturbing lack of gender perspective in public policy. Taxation is not a mere accounting exercise. It should be designed to encourage desirable consumption of goods and services in the society.