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Bleed tax-free

After a year of concentrated protests, the government has finally retracted GST on sanitary napkins. Menstrual hygiene, awareness and accessible toilets though, continue to pose a challenge in India.

Women in India, who had been waging a long-drawn battle, breathed a sigh of relief praising the government's decision of removing compulsory tax on sanitary napkins.

In a bid to improve the condition of female hygiene in the country, the government on July 21 exempted sanitary pads from GST. Though sanitary napkins have been exempted from GST, inputs in the production of sanitary napkins are still taxable. Menstrual cups and tampons too remain within the GST ambit.

Earlier, only NGOs would introduce initiatives regarding menstrual awareness for the upliftment of underprivileged women and girls; but, now, the government too is prioritising the matter and contributing towards holistic women's empowerment.

In India, due to the limited availability of sanitary napkins, suspicious men running shops and the absence of accessible toilets, many girls avoid attending school, bringing barriers to their educational growth. The removal of GST from sanitary napkins will economically empower them towards a brighter future.

"The lower rates will now help people like us afford sanitary napkins. Earlier, when we were out of money, we often used rags, which is an affordable substitution but makes working difficult," said Malti*, a domestic help in Delhi.

India is coming up with different initiatives to educate women about the importance of menstrual hygiene with the motive of removing the taboo from society; but, in some places, women do not even have access to sanitary napkins during their periods. Instead, they use rags, ashes and other common household items. Only the removal of tax though won't drastically alter their lifestyle. Education and awareness are parallelly important.

As toilets come with sanitary pad vending machines, the other challenge is managing the waste being generated from discarding these pads. India still doesn't have a scientific mechanism to tackle non-biodegradable waste like sanitary pads. Exemption from GST is only a small step in addressing the larger issue of menstrual hygiene.

"My friend generally skips school while on her periods because she is uncomfortable coming out of her house wearing rags. Her parents can't afford pads," said Akanksha* a female student. However, there are NGOs who reach out to women across rural India to secure a healthy and safe sanitary environment for them.

"It's a good move on the government's part, reflecting their responsibility. Putting it into an exemption category will definitely help many women in our country and encourage NGOs too," said Suhani Jalota, Founder of the Myna Mahila Foundation.

The Mumbai-based NGO manufactures low-cost sanitary napkins and encourages discussion on taboo subjects such as menstruation. Further, the foundation provides stable employment to women dwelling in slums by encouraging them to manufacture sanitary napkins, with an aim to expand its reach to more underprivileged women in society.

"On our part, we manufacture sanitary and maternity napkins and provide them at the doorsteps of the underprivileged. We aim to reach out to women living in urban slums to empower them. Also, we have collaborations with schools and colleges where we provide napkins," Jalota added.

"We feel the GST exemption is a good move. Our concern is that cheaper non-biodegradable products will also mean more menstrual waste, adding to the colossal waste problem our country faces today. We feel more could have been done if the government had exempted GST for biodegradable products to promote and support them or use this exemption to get product manufacturers to do more in dealing with menstrual waste or get them to invest in accessibility of toilets, water, awareness programmes etc," said Meenakshi Gupta, Co-founder of Goonj.

Goonj helps underprivileged women by providing them reusable sanitary napkins in different sectors of India. It focuses on opening up discussions on the subject of menstrual hygiene: by involving the urban masses in generating an affordable cloth pad for rural women who don't even have enough cloth to fulfil this basic need.

Government Initiatives

The Indian government is stepping towards a new niche by creating a hygienic and comfortable environment for women and focusing on creating toilets with accessible feminine hygienic products. Last year, SDMC initiated the Pink Toilet project for women. It has been specifically designed with the availability of vending machines and comfortable spaces to provide a convenient and safe environment for women in the city. SDMC is planning to open more such facilitated toilets in 2018 after successfully opening two of them in South Delhi last year.

"We have started the initiative last year in cooperation with PVR by opening two toilets in PVR Vikaspuri and PVR Anupam with the facilities of vending machines, sofa and other necessities in the toilets to provide women with a healthy and hygienic environment. We are planning to open more such toilets in the city with the target of opening at least two toilets at the end of 2018," said Mayor Kamaljeet Sherawat, SDMC.

Year-long lobbying

The sanitary napkin debate came forward when last year, lawmaker Sushmita Dev, shed light on the topic and launched a petition to demand a reduction or total removal of taxes on pads, citing that about 70 per cent women in the country could not afford them. The decision triggered protests, petitions and court cases that highlighted the issue of imposing the tax and categorising pads into luxury items rather than an essential one, such as condoms, which are tax-free.

Industrial Impact

In July 2017, the government had defended the decision against lowering the GST rate of 12 per cent on sanitary napkins citing the high tax rates of 18 per cent and 12 per cent on the inputs. But, this year, they have exempted it from the list without any additional benefit of input cost.

Prior to the implementation of GST, sanitary napkins fell under different tax rates, but the average tax rate was around 14.5 per cent. Since GST, sanitary pads came in the 12 per cent tax bracket.

Moreover, the government is taxing the sanitary pads that are manufactured by MNC's like PnG, Johnson and Johnson, SOFY etc. There are many local NGOs and other bodies that manufacture sanitary pads, whose turnover is very less and they are either paying no GST or at a very nominal percentage.

*Names changed to maintain anonymity

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