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The Paradox Of Period Protection In India

The Paradox Of Period Protection In India

“Chaar anne ka rooi, do anne ki potli,” the protagonist wonders aloud to himself as he inspects a sanitary napkin. The puzzler here is why is the sanitary napkin so expensive if it is made up of only cotton worth four anna and 2 annas worth of plastic covering and the puzzled is Laxmikant Chauhan or Laxmi, the protagonist in the movie “Padman”, which is based on the real-life story of Arunachalam Muruganatham.

A welder in a small village of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, Muruganatham was aghast when he saw his wife use a dirty rag during her menstruation. In the cinematic representation of that incident, “I wouldn’t use it to clean even my cycle”, Laxmi says, as he cajoles his wife to give up using the dirty rag. In reality, without paying heed to social ostracism, Muruganatham set out on a path of invention and, after years of toil, builds a low-cost sanitary napkin-making machine. But the journey did begin with him dissecting a pad to investigate the reason behind the exorbitant price.

As it turned out eventually, a sanitary napkin wasn’t just “chaar anne ki rooi, do anne ki potli”, as the protagonist of the movie, played by Akshay Kumar, fathoms. But it does plant a question in our head. Why are sanitary napkins so expensive? On second thoughts, expensive might be a relative term. After all, what’s expensive for one person may not be dear to the other. What the question really should be is, why does an item of basic feminine hygiene have to come at a cost at all. And this is where the line of thought gets murkier. Currently, sanitary napkins are not just expensive, but the present government also imposes a 12 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST) on them. Now, to a woman of limited means, of what good is a “Whisper” or a “Stayfree” if it is not tax-free!

In a petition filed in the Delhi High Court challenging the 12 percent GST, the petitioner had claimed that placing sanitary napkins in the high tax slab is unconstitutional, illegal and arbitrary. The plea sought quashing of the 12 percent GST and declaring them to be liable to nil or reduced rate.

According the GST structure, kajal, kumkum, bindis, sindoor, alta, plastic and glass bangles, hearing aids, passenger baggage, puja samagri of all kinds and all types of contraceptives, including condoms, are exempted from taxation. Instead, sanitary napkins are grouped with toys, leather good, roasted coffee, mobile phones and processed food for the imposition of a GST rate of 12 percent.

In response to the PIL, the High Court issued a notice to the Finance Ministry and the GST council on a plea against the tax imposition on the sanitary napkins under the GST regime.

However, in January, the Supreme Court stayed all high courts proceedings challenging the constitutional validity of imposition of 12 percent GST on sanitary napkins.

During the formulation of GST, it was declared that items of national importance and items that are indispensable to a household would be exempted from tax. Going by that claim, sanitary napkins – a necessity for every female who has attained puberty – should not come under any charge or surcharge.

But, as of now, by levying 12 percent GST, the government is violating a woman’s constitutionally granted right to life and personal liberty and right to equality, and not according to her the human dignity she deserves.

So when the government acts as though sanitary napkins and the tax imposed on them and the needs of women, it is problematic. Women do make up a sizeable number in the vote bank, don’t they? Then, why the latent discrimination?

The draconian period tax is true for not just this government but many governments that have come over it. If the Bharatiya Janata Party government put objects of feminine health in the high tax slab bracket of 12 percent, it was only following the precedent set by previous governments. The previous United Progressive Alliance government had been levying 13-14 percent tax on sanitary napkins as Value Added Tax (VAT).

Government’s defence? A sanitary napkin manufacturer procures raw materials at 12 percent GST. After the sanitary napkins are produced, the manufacturer sells them to the retailer, including the 12 percent tax as well in the cost. Retailer recovers the 12 percent tax from the consumer. GST is an indirect tax, that is to say, the burden of this particular type of tax falls on the consumer. If the 12 percent tax paid by the consumer is cut, the burden of the tax will fall on the retailer, manufacturer, or on the one selling the raw materials.

Reducing the GST rate on sanitary napkins to nil will result in complete denial of input tax credit to domestic manufacturers of sanitary napkins and zero rating imports. Under such adverse financial climes, the domestic manufacturers may abandon production of sanitary napkins, which would then have to be imported from foreign shores. The imported sanitary towels will come with both import duty and customs duty, making it further expensive and not a feasible solution. Therefore, the only way out, according to the government, is to load the final product with tax for the consumer to bear. Yes, that doesn’t make any sense. If condoms can be purchased tax-free and distributed for free via vending machines, then why not sanitary napkins? After all, a sexual urge is one that can be controlled (if a person can’t, then prison’s obviously the way ahead), unlike menstruation, which is a bodily function.

Then what is a feasible and pocket-friendly solution to the period problem suffered by scores of women across the nook and cranny of the country? The solution is in the innovation displayed by the likes of Arunachalam Muruganatham, who nearly two decades ago came up with his low-cost sanitary pad machine, which cost $1000 as opposed to the regular machines that cost $550,000.

In “Padman”, when Laxmikant Chauhan presents his wife, renamed as Gayatri, essayed by Radhika Apte, with a pack of sanitary napkins, she is filled with horror and shock – not just at the idea of her husband meddling in affairs of the womenfolk in the family but more importantly at the cost of the sanitary napkins. “Pachpan ruppe? Isko istemaal karna hai toh mahine ka doodh, ghee sab bandh karna padega,” she exclaims. (“Rs 55? If I use this every month we would have say goodbye to our monthly consumption of milk and ghee.”)

This scene was a direct reproduction of a conversation between Muruganatham and his wife, Shanthi.

While the absurdity of choosing between buying sanitary napkins and having food on the table may baffle some, if an AC Nielson survey is any indication, the cost of sanitary napkins is really the prime reason why women continue to use cloth. Eighty percent of the respondents who took the survey said the reason behind the use of cloth or homemade napkin was the cost of sanitary napkins.

A pack of eight napkins (the basic variety) costs no less than Rs 30. A woman should ideally change napkins every four-five hours so as to avoid bacterial infections –which means a pack of eight pads is enough for only two days. Over a single menstrual cycle, a woman will use up more than two packs of sanitary napkins, the cost of which will be Rs 60.

In households, where women go through their periods in secrecy, getting this amount is not an easy task. For women working in daily wage jobs, a basic need becomes a luxury. As for homeless women living on the streets, they are often forced to go without any sanitary products. They are forced to tear up any piece of cloth they find lying about and use it to absorb the blood flow. Rs 60 for two packs is, after all, not a nominal amount. Even if women were to limit their monthly use to just one pack, the battles fought to acquire that amount do point toward the pitiable state of women in our country.

As the theatre release of “Padman” drew near, the marketing team of the movie launched an online campaign called #PadmanChallenge, which had celebrities posing with a sanitary napkin. The idea was to promote conversation on menstruation and menstrual hygiene. The movie did succeed in creating ripples of conversation in areas where the subject of periods was met with deafening and discomfiting silence.

However, the real challenge is among women belonging to lower socioeconomic classes where social and economic constraints are far more prominent. Here, category recruitment for sanitary napkin usage is still minimal. There needs to be sustained awareness initiatives, as well as social endorsement by role models that women from this segment can look up to. Such programmes would give them the much needed courage to go and buy sanitary napkins or start practicing safe and hygienic methods to manage their menstruation.

The AC Nielson study mentioned earlier also found that a staggering 93 percent of girls missed 1-2 days of school on an average every month due to menstruation. While pain and discomfort stopped 74 percent of the girls from going to school, an astonishing 38 percent said they chose to stay at home so as to avoid staining their clothes. About nine in every 10 girls missed a day or two of school every month during menstruation, mainly due to physical discomfort as well as the fear of staining clothes. Thirteen percent pointed out shame and embarrassment as the reasons why they avoided schools. Now, if the government is sincere about pushing ahead the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” project, distributing free napkins and addressing the concerns young school girls have about periods is a great way to lay foundation to greater attendance among girl students.

But, come to think of it, is it only girls that need awareness? Menstruation may be a female “issue”, but that does not mean men are away from it. A man’s take on menstruation is just as vital as a woman’s. It is only when a man is aware and educated about the biology of a woman that he can truly take care of the women in his life – his mother, sisters, girlfriend, wife, friends.

Recently, Joseph Anamkutty Jose, a Radio Jockey based in Kerala, while speaking at a menstruation and menstrual hygiene awareness event “Stain the Stigma” at St. Teresa’s College, Ernakulam, delved deep into his own childhood to highlight the problems engendered by silence around the subject of periods. “But at that time [adolescence], it was nothing but part of our sexual curiosity to understand about periods. We [Jose and friends] even had games, you see. Who will first find out which of the girls in class was on her periods. If we see a girl classmate run out of the classroom on the 22nd of this month, then we eagerly wait to see whether she will run out of class the same day next month. We used to even ask to see a girl’s bag. If she refused, that meant she had sanitary pads in them. This was cheap behaviour from our side, but sadly, that’s how we understood menstruation,” Jose said. In the movie “Padman”, a bunch of boys who are always shown playing cricket address periods with their own code name: five days of test match.

Now, this is not to say all men are ignorant or discourteous. But if the boys are taught early, in detail and not in passing reference, about biology and the changes that the body undergoes at puberty, it will help in inculcating in the boys respect for their own body and that of the opposite sex, and will further create a female-friendly environment both in school and home. When these boys grow up to attain positions of power, they will be compassionate towards the needs of women, unlike our present male-majority power centres that live in oblivion of female needs. Notably, the 31-member GST Council did not have a single woman.

If we are able to nurture an environment where girls are assured that menstruation is a natural, biological process and not a burden or a stain of shame or humiliation, they will not have to prioritise between getting an education and letting bodily functions take their course.

In the hinterlands of our country, when Muruganatham devised his low-cost sanitary napkin-making machine, he heralded a kind of social revolution that not only better equipped women to take care of their menstrual needs but also empowered them to take up the supply of sanitary napkins as a business.

An example of this emancipation can be found in Kerala’s Ettumanoor district, where a group of four women are diligently working towards making affordable napkins a reality in their vicinity. Founder-member and former staff nurse Lissy Martin was aware of the falling standards in female healthcare and menstrual hygiene. With the help of Kudumbasree, an all-female self-help group, she was able to buy a sanitary napkin-making machine from Coimbatore. Though Martin did not tell me explicitly, I suspect it is one of Muruganatham’s machines. Although their venture is still in its infancy, she and her three friends are supplying sanitary napkins to women through door-to-door sales. The local supermarket is also selling the product owing to its demand among women customers.

The group was one among the Kudumbasree units to send 10,000 sanitary napkins to Jammu and Kashmir from Kerala during the 2014 floods. Emphasising on the necessity of napkins, another member of the four-member group, Priya noted, “The extent to which help, in times of natural calamity, is extended limits to food, clothing and shelter. We, as a society, fail to take cognisance of the hygienic needs of the women affected by the tragedy. As women, we understood the plight of those women and so we lent them a helping hand.”

Most times, a helping hand is all that women need to lift themselves up. Muruganatham did not sell his idea or machine for crores of rupees. He instead encouraged copycats and created a network of empowered, enterprising women. And in this enterprise exists a solution that the government can adopt. Financial constraints have constantly forced India to come up with inventions that are cheaper versions of Western products. When the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mangalyaan spacecraft entered into orbit around Mars a few days after a NASA probe did the same, the most significant difference between the two missions was that Mangalyaan had cost a tenth of what NASA had spent. Similarly, napkins can be produced indigenously to replace their expensive counterparts. They will be tax free. And they will create employment opportunity to boot. They may not exactly contribute to the government’s exchequer, but then again why should bare necessities be a means to make profit? Women, where they are supposed to, do pay taxes. Then they why should they pay another round of taxes simply for being born as women? Why should women be doubly taxed?

Last year, Member of Parliament Sushmita Dev created a petition addressed to Arun Jaitley for removal of tax on sanitary napkins. Calling the tax unfair, Dev wrote, “Women are being taxed 12 months a year, for about 39 years on a process they have no control over.” Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister For Women and Child Development, received the petition 11 months ago. Unfortunately, that’s the last we have heard of this “Tax Free Wings” petition.

Periods is not a choice. Periods is not an option. Periods is not a disability. Periods is not a burden. Mainly, periods is not an insult. The tax on sanitary napkins is a tax on womanhood. It’s high time the government took note of this grave injustice.

(Published on 26th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 09)