By Rasananda Panda, Prashanta Ch. Panda & Sonam Mathura* : India is a land of vividness. Citizens openly share their views on different socio-political and governance issues. Each one is entitled to opinions on the way the country should function. India has a huge rich poor divide i.e disparity across disposable incomes. Money or tax matters cannot be an exception here.

So when the Government of India introduced the Goods and Service Tax (GST) on 1st July 2017, the anticipation on taxes came to a halt and divergent views started pouring in. A move to counter the cascading tax effect, GST was since long on the government’s agenda. Several rounds of discussions and meetings, endless curious questions and opinions resulted into the GST that we have today. The aim here was not only to counter the tax on tax effect but also to simplify and smoothen the taxation on goods and services in the country.

The GST is to be applied across several categories of good except alcohol, crude oil, petrol, natural gas etc. which have been exempted. Certain indirect taxes like Stamp Duty, Property tax, Toll tax, electricity duty etc. are also exempted from GST. The rest of the goods have been brought under one of the four categories of tax based on their “status”. The word status here aims to signify the necessity or the luxury that the good/service offers or is so expected to offer. Hence came GST into force with the ‘status’ of the good defining its fate on the tax slab.

While the government decides zero tax on necessary goods, the luxury ones attracted a higher tax rate. Amongst the most discussed ones, the 12 percent GST on sanitary napkins has been slapped compared to zero tax on Sindoor, condoms and birth control pills sparking a debate across the nation and has fired up activist groups. You can also see a whole group of social bloggers have shared and exchanged their views on the same. It has altogether brought back the age long debate on women, their needs and status.

Ours is a society that has been categorized as patriarchal. Every time a new issue like the current debate comes up, the whole county stands on two opposite views. Extreme Feminists have risen up against the government on the issue. Social media is no exception. It is full of opinions and stories where the discussion has been spread out as an agenda and the real essence of the discussion seems to have deviated to traditions and beliefs. There is uproar on the topic and the media is playing the perfect platform for people to share their opinions. The no tax on condoms and birth control pills is diverted as an emphasis on choice vs need where women health is in question.

A nationwide survey gauging menstrual hygiene by Plan India revealed that 68% of rural Indian women are not able to afford sanitary napkins. Sanitary napkin, an essential personal hygiene product, has very low penetration in India due to it’s high price. The survey showed that 81% of rural women use unsterilized cloth since it is relatively cheaper than sanitary napkins.

The government however has maintained its stand and hasn’t opinionated a product. For the stance here, the Sanitary Pads now attract a GST of 12% which is lower than its earlier tax at 14%. The sindoor, bangles and applique, with no GST were not categorized as essential as they are made out to be, but are simply a result of their manufacturing processes.

India’s small scale industry is the manufacturing bearer for the bangles and sindoor. For a country where a large part of the population is still deprived of the basic needs, both the category of goods in discussion are a passé. A quick scan through the GST tax brackets that have been applied to female products of everyday use, has made people deduce that the government is trying to promote a certain image of the ideal Indian woman–and has picked out her weapons of choice for her.

The issue brought out loud here is that a major share of girls in India drop out of the school due to menstruation. The women health and hygiene here are projected as the main reason for them to drop out of schools. What we fail to realize here is that boys too drop out of the school quite early into their education. Can menstruation be the reason behind this? Also, a lot of women who use traditional methods are projected under high health risk and hygiene posing a major concern to their health! What we have failed to realize here is the need for us to bring out the real concern for the women.

The manufacturing of Sanitary Pads is done in the most elaborate manner. The foreign brands that shout out loud for women hygiene and safety use the most elaborated R&D to manufacture the hygienic “Sanitary Pads”. Whereas the poor SMEs manufacture the bangles and sindoor do not even get a platform to promote their product. The point here is, ‘is it really about the women health, or is this debate blown out of proportion to satisfy every avid feminist’s opinions?’

It was always the government’s agenda to make what is necessary available to every citizen of the country, but the projection of goods is never justified. It is not vindicated to compare the two goods. Most of the companies manufacturing sanitary napkins are foreign and see India as a huge market for their product. The problem here is that people fail to realize the real agenda behind this debate that is initiated and spread for the money making foreign firms. We fail our own daughters when we trap them in cages of ignorance bound by the name of traditions, values and beliefs.

‘Beti Bachao, beti padhao’, and other such campaigns lose their relevance when they are bound by discussions over traditions. What we overlook here is that the world stresses on greater agendas like environment protection and sustainable development and has started promoting the use of biodegradable sanitary napkins, menstrual cups and reusable sanitary pads. This poses a threat to the existing sanitary pad manufacturers whose products use non-biodegradable material that a threat not only to the health but also the environment. Where would they channelize their products? The answer is simple and clear!

Like every coin has two sides, the products in debate also attach an economic value to them. The bangles and sindoor with no GST are the source of income for the SMEs and small craftsmen whereas the Sanitary pads are a channel for our income flowing out.

Similarly, a zero percent tax on condoms and birth control pills may be seen as a move by the government to promote population control practices in the country. When the world is resorting to our SMEs, why are we biased? The whole agenda here was to tax the branded and spare the local.

And the choice lies with the consumer. Any women who wishes to buy sindoor/applique from a brand would be taxed over the one who chooses our SME’s product. Similar is the case with Sanitary Pads. There are several NGOs that are working at teaching rural women to stitch and use their own sanitary pads that are both degradable as well as reusable. The similar choice lies with every woman in the county. She has all the options to choose for herself.

We cannot say that the trumpet is blown out of proportion and we as citizens are failing to realize the underlying principle of mind over sound. A study by AC Nielsen found that 97% gynecologists support use of napkins to reduce the risk of severe Reproductive Tract Infections (RTIs). Feminine hygiene care in India needs bigger awareness and support to reduce the drop in productivity level of women workers or increase the school attendance records of adolescent girls in rural areas.

State governments are sensitive to this issue. We find Gujarat government, with assistance from the Central government, provided pad at the rate of Rs 6 per packet. In a phased manner this may be further subsidized to Rs 1 per packet. New Uttar Pradesh government is most likely to follow the suit. AIADMK has similar schemes running in Tamil Nadu where free distribution of napkins is promoted. ‘She Pad’ scheme for school students is already in process in Kerala.

Bihar government is doling out Rs. 150/- for each girl student in class VIII and onwards towards feminine hygiene care. Delhi government spends Rs. 1.05 crore for 7.5 lakh girl students each month. Rajasthan government has made the scheme for 16 lakh girls in the age group of 14 to 19 years, who are mostly in BPL group. Madhya Pradesh government is promoting self help groups to produce it, which will be subsequently procured and distributed by anganwadis. NABARD is also promoting eco-friendly Nirmal Sanitary Napkins project to generate employment and for women’ health and hygiene.

Non branded sanitary napkins are available at 40 to 45 % cheaper prices by Azadi and also Anadi pad by Akar sanitary napkin production unit. Jayshree units promote entrepreneurs to produce at Rs 16 per 8 pack. In branded ones Indians have been buying Sofy Body Fit (Rs 91 for 12 pads), Stay Free (Rs 33 for 8 pad), Stay Free Dry Max ultra Thin (Rs 83 for 7 pads), Whisper Choice Ultra (Rs 41 for 6 pads). Now their prices are sure to fall as tax rates reduced from 14% to 12%.

We will witness continuity in growing sales trend of these brands. They fall into income sensitive group rather than a small change in rise of prices. Principle of affordability and involvement of profit seeking and cash rich companies in production clearly support the stand of the government.

India homes to 70% of poor household categories are mostly price sensitive as their income are low and range bound. It is a huge market and bigger obligations. To promote production by smaller institutions (as capital requirement is low, technical knowhow is easier), employment, local availability Government and private companies can be a big help.

It is high time we stop passing judgement and work on the rational aspects of things. We need to analyze the bigger picture. Only then would we be able to overcome our habit of opinionating and comparing.

*(Rasananda Panda, Prashanta Ch. Panda are faculty of Economics in Gujurat and Sonam Mathura is Research Associate at MICA.)