By Nidhi Kinhal
Even before the new GST was rolled out this July, the glaring absurdity of sindhoor and puja items being tax-free, whereas sanitary napkins suffering a 12 percent GST rate was heavily critiqued. While some people saw it as reflective of the government’s priorities, and the campaign against the tax was peddled by Congress MP Sushmita Dev and Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, the defence almost always was cornered to an argument from the economics of GST.
While cries of “GST is not sexist!” have been visible, the government, on July 10, issued a press note in response to the “remarks made by various column writers” on the sanitary napkin tax. According to the note, sanitary napkins were taxed at 13.68 percent: 6 percent excise duty and 5 percent VAT., before the GST, which makes the 12 percent absolutely justified. The other argument in the press note is that the main raw materials are already at a high GST rate, and naturally, the final product also needs to be taxed appropriately.
But wait, this is not the whole picture. The Economic Times has busted even that defence for us: the VAT on sanitary napkins was not valid everywhere in the country, so for most states, the tax rate on pads has nearly doubled. Moreover, the heavily taxed raw materials refer to objects like super absorbent polymer, poly ethylene film, glue, release paper and wood pulp, which make up just 20 percent of the total cost! Cotton, which makes up 80 percent of the total cost, is at 5 percent GST.
When even a carefully calculated, official argument in favour of taxing an essential menstrual hygiene product has loopholes, it really does come down more to the male bias of the decision-making bodies. It is already outrageous that not only do most women menstruate, they also have to perform complex circus tactics to let it remain invisible, quiet, and out of sight. We also now have to pay for it. The affordability argument should really be enough to withdraw this tax; however, it is also a dangerous precedent, where all women’s needs (not what men think are women’s needs *cough* sindoor, bangles, and everything that makes women please their eye) are dismissed. The male gaze creeping into policy needs to be battled, and organisations are already on it.
Over 300 women students affiliated to the Students Federation of India in Thiruvananthapuram did the most bloody, badass thing in protest of the tax. Remember the battle against menstrual taboos in Jamia and Jadavpur Universities? Just switch the campus to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Office. Deeming the government’s argument as “insincere”, the students launched a protest on July 11, and sent hoards of sanitary napkins (via speed post, mind you) with “Bleed Without Fear, Bleed Without Tax” written on them to Mr. Jaitley.
The sheer shock value of opening the mail and finding the illogical tax staring back at you should do the job. The fight to erase the sanitary napkin tax is ongoing, and while deploying a taboo object to our benefit may just be a gesture, it will hopefully succeed in making the government rethink its incentive systems and people’s affordability.