of GST on sanitary napkins announced by the Government can be traced to wider public discourse on menstrual hygiene which during the last few years have been taking place in the wider society with greater frequency and the demand made by women, civil society and leaders of public life for making sanitary pads more accessible and affordable.
Even the celluloid world which produced a box office hit film Pad Man sensitized the public and generated a discussion on a subject which our age old patriarchal and religious tradition kept it wrapped under taboos, prejudices and wrong notions of pollution and contamination of female body and psyche.
In fact a remarkable movement on menstrual hygiene and the critical necessity of improved access and availability of safe hygienic material to girls and women is sweeping the world. It is an extraordinary awakening which is coinciding with the increasing planetary consciousness woven around gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The Delhi Declaration adopted in the South Asian Conference on Sanitation in the 2008 accorded menstrual hygiene national priority and stated
“The special sanitation needs of women (e.g. menstrual hygiene management) will be integrated in planning, implementation, monitoring and measurement of program outcomes. The key role of women in managing sanitation and hygiene in community settings will be enhanced”.
With the advent of GST era which was ushered in on 1st July 2017 with much fan fare in the midnight to proclaim the unity and integrity of India in terms of a unified tax structure which aimed at investing the much needed economic content to it, the imposition of 12 per cent GST on sanitary pads was seen as a step not in consonance with the deeper and avowed objectives embodied in the much trumpeted “Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao” slogan of the Government.
In fact in May 2917 when Sushmita Dev, Congress MP, representing Silchar in Assam, submitted an online petition “Tax Free Wings” demanding no GST on sanitary pads lakhs signed it and eventually it was submitted to the Finance Minister Shri Arun Jaitley. Yet the items used by women such as bindi, sindoor and bangles were considered as essential items and exempted from tax and sanitary pads were considered as luxury items and a 12 percent tax was imposed.
Tiruchi Siva, a Member of Rajya Sabha, belonging to DMK, while participating in the discussion in the Rajya Sabha on International Women’s Day on 8th March 2018 had demanded zero GST on sanitary napkins. While saying that we are just confining ourselves to extending wishes to the women community on the International Women’s Day and everyone suggesting the passage of the Women‖s Reservation Bill to increase their representation in legislatures, he urged the Government to exempt the sanitary napkins from the GST net so that many poor and rural women would find these affordable. The Chairman, Rajya Sabha, hailed it as a good suggestion.
It is instructive to note that the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu late Jayalalitha had put in the election manifesto of her party in 2011 the issue of free supply of sanitary napkins to three million adolescent girls and some women prison inmates and patients in Government hospitals.
What was done in India in 2018 in terms of exemption of sanitary pads from GST has a precedence In the U.K. where the Labour Government reduced VAT on sanitary products from 17.5% to 5% in 2000 and ast year MPs backed the abolition of the "tampon tax", the tax on sanitary pads, after the government accepted a Labour amendment to the budget.
Many progressive measures taken, of late, in European countries to promote menstrual hygiene based on awareness, accessibility and affordability led to reduction of taxes on sanitary pads. All these augur well for women who are now in the forefront of the movement for changing the society so that it is informed by values of equality, equal opportunity and empowerment. This global movement has to be broad based by including women and girls of all strata of society so that their empowerment based on their affordable access to sanitary pads would enable them to pursue their education and perform the tasks in diverse domains. It is a national issue, a human development issue and must receive adequate priority and exemption of GST on such matters is a first step.
# Mr Satya Narayan Sahu was OSD and Press Secretary to the late President of India Shri K.R. Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister's Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed by him are personal and not that of Rajya Sabha Secretariat.