By Aashika Ravi
It’s 2018 and unfortunately, Gloria Steinem’s essay If Men Could Menstruate is as relevant as it was in 1978. She wrote back then: “Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields ‘For Those Light Bachelor Days.'” The cultural references might be a bit obscure, but her witty commentary on a world of “men-struating” men who use flow as a measure for pride and worth, I suspect, will never be dated.
On Saturday, the Goods and Services (GST) Council announced that sanitary napkins would be exempted from GST. Previously, they were taxed at 12 percent when the GST was launched in July 2017. The move to make sanitary napkins tax-free came after year-long opposition in the form of campaigns, protests and petitions from activists.
In March 2017, MP Sushmita Dev had petitioned then finance minister Arun Jaitley, Minister for Health and Family Welfare JP Nadda and Minister For Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi to have sanitary napkins exempted from tax as they were not luxury products. The petition received over 2 lakh signatures.
#BleedWithoutTax started by the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), sent sanitary napkins with the slogan “bleed without fear, bleed without tax” to Jaitley in July last year, while Youth ki Awaaz started their own hashtag #IAmNotDown to protest the taxation of sanitary napkins.
SheSays India, a Mumbai-based NGO that works to promote gender equality and women’s rights, has been hammering at the government’s doors on this issue since as far back as 2016. They launched the viral campaign #lahukalagaan (tax on blood), which had the support of comedians like Kaneez Surka, Mallika Dua and actor Aditi Rao Hydari. They have also released multiple videos on the subject and even filed a public interest litigation, which founder Trisha Shetty says is pending in the Supreme Court.
Beyond a legal recognition of sanitary napkins as a necessity, these movements have been fighting for access to better menstrual health more than anything. Look at the statistics: the vast 2015-’16 National Family Health Survey indicates that 62 percent of very young women (ages 15 to 24) use cloth during their periods. Other (much smaller) studies have indicated the poor menstrual health management available to most Indian women and also how closely linked it is to schoolgirls dropping out.
It’s ridiculous to remember that Maneka Gandhi was ever of the opinion that 12 percent tax was alright as long as Self-Help Groups (SHGs) were encouraged to make their own biodegradable pads. I mean, did she realise that bindi, sindoor (vermillion) and kajal (or items that Divyani Rattanpal hilariously called “sanskaari se bhaari”) were exempted from tax way before sanitary napkins were? Gandhi had said: “If we decide on a policy of loan system, then we will have lots of SHGs coming up who will make pads and spread it in a completely localised manner rather than having some distant MNC come here.” Now, there is much to be said about why MNCs dominate the sanitary pad market, the environmental costs of sanitary napkins and so on. Sure, but generalised hand waving is not going to help, sister.
Social media, of course, has not held back on their witticisms and criticisms over the last year, or now that the tax has been wiped away.
Radio Mirchi’s RJ Charu posted this funky picture of a pad that looks too cool for school, while comic Sumukhi Suresh kept it simple with her tweet that just said: “#lahukalagaan maaf” (tax on blood waived). The move also gave birth to some amazing artwork like this one by Instagram user @jiljilramamani, celebrating the news and “sending hugs out into the universe for every voice of dissent raised over the last year”.
Editor of Mirror Now Faye D’Souza, who has been a notable voice on this issue, also posted a gleeful picture of herself on social media, clutching a pad that said, “Thank you FM & GST Council.”
After a year-long fight #GSTCouncil has abolished tax on sanitary pads! Feminine Hygiene is now tax free! Lives will be saved! Thank you to the FM, the Government of India and the GST council. Also, take a bow @TrishaBShetty and @SheSaysIndia pic.twitter.com/BGwd2xdGCl
— Faye DSouza (@fayedsouza) July 21, 2018
Mirror Now also interviewed Trisha Shetty, activist and founder of SheSays India, who brought attention to how few women in India have access to sanitary napkins, while others are forced to use unsafe items like plastic and dried leaves. Of their journey, she said: “Our end goal was always to ensure that women have guaranteed access to menstrual hygiene products, and they don’t have to resort to using such unsafe alternatives that none of us who are privileged would even dream of using.”
While most organisations and people — including 12 percent-is-alright Maneka Gandhi — welcomed the move, some saw it for what it really was: a belated realisation that our menstrual cycles are far from a luxury. As Neo Pachisia, a Shamanic healer, eloquently said on Twitter, “You do something stupid, rectify it and want to take credit for rectifying it?”
why was #SanitaryNapkins taxed in the first place!
— Main Hoon Na (@neo_pac) July 21, 2018
Now, the unhappy news. Several folks online have warned us all that we shouldn’t rejoice because while tax might be zero, prices of sanitary napkins could actually increase to compensate for the lack of input credit tax. Most of these voices were drowned out in the celebrations, but we think this line of reasoning should definitely not be ignored. To compensate for the taxes incurred on raw materials used to make sanitary napkins, pad manufacturers might increase their prices.
We asked V Kesavan, a Bangalore-based chartered accountant, and he said that theoretically, this is a real possibility. “If there is a tax on input or raw materials, since the external (aka the pad) that we deliver is not chargeable to tax, what happens is that it becomes a cost for the company. If it was not exempt, the company would’ve tried to charge it from the customer and offset it against the cost of inputs. But if it is exempt, they cannot offset the inputs. So as a result, he (the manufacturer) will increase the product price, what is being charged,” he explains.
This is very annoying. The hope was that a packet of 10 sanitary pads that costs roughly Rs 100 would cost Rs 88 without GST. But we should have thought of this since the GST has been constructed in the “here is a chain letter and if you break the chain you will all fall into manure for seven years” method.
However, that raincloud is something we can only deal with once the move comes into effect from 27 July. But for now, let us rejoice, even if just momentarily, in the fact that menstrual hygiene is finally making baby steps towards being recognised in the way that Steinem talks about in If Men Could Menstruate.
Co-published with Firstpost