“Women are being taxed 12 months a year, for about 39 years on a process they have no control over. How is that fair?” argues Congress MP Sushmita Dev in her recent petition to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, to help revise India’s taxation policy on sanitary napkins. Initiated on Women’s Day, the petition has garnered over 190,000 signatures till date. Dev, who is from Silchar constituency, Assam, highlights a bleak statistic – of India’s 355 million women, only 12% use napkins.
Women from other nations such as the USA and UK are fighting for similar exemptions on the ‘tampon tax’. Essentially the question being asked is, “Why are we being taxed to bleed?” With Dev’s petition, an important conversation has come into the political spotlight, one that several activists and organisations have been fighting for over the last several decades. However, the scope of the petition is might still be limited.
One important nuance around disposable sanitary napkins is this – all disposable napkins are not bad for the environment. It is true that major players in the sanitary napkin industry such as Johnson & Johnson (Stayfree) and Procter & Gamble (Whisper), produce napkins that take up to 500 years to disintegrate, and despite there being a huge untapped potential for women of limited means, these corporations do not seem inclined to churn product lines that are basic, cheap and safe to use.
However, there are several non-multinational, smaller commercial and social enterprises producing disposable sanitary napkins made of cotton, pulp, vegetable waste, and other materials, and these are 100% biodegradable. These must also come under the ambit of those sanitary napkins that are not to be taxed, or else it is the consumer who will pay a higher price.
The second aspect is the non-inclusion or even mention of other products such as menstrual cups. While there are no concrete numbers available on the exact usage of these two products in India, the popularity of menstrual cups is definitely increasing. Shouldn’t women have the right to choose, based on their comfort levels?
Thirdly, there need to be concrete measures taken to encourage players like Muruganantham’s Jayaashree Industries, which is built around the micro-entrepreneurship concept that empowers women by involving them in the production and distribution process, as well as organisations like Eco Femme and Saathi Pads, all driving change and attempting to achieving objectives beyond profitability. A key element being incorporated in their design and production of napkins is promoting sustainability with the use of biodegradable materials. They also invest a portion of their profits towards education programmes in rural areas.
The reach of smaller players remains limited due to production, distribution and marketing constraints, and sans visibility and support from the government, getting into the mainstream supply will be a longer journey.
In a welcome move, the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation in Kerala recently tied up with a condom manufacturer, HLL Lifecare Limited, to install 60 sanitary napkin vending machines and incinerators across the city. The first 500 packets will be free and after that a charge of ten rupees for three napkins. Surely this economic and convenient solution can be replicated across the country.
Of course, Dev is pragmatic enough to admit the shortcomings of her initiatives. “I cannot petition the Finance Ministry about awareness, though. What I can do in my own constituency is raise capital funding for vending machines to be installed in schools and public toilets,” she says.
Nevertheless, if approved, Dev’s #TaxfreeWings campaign has the potential to address the wider issue of ensuring menstrual hygiene as a human right. Though we have a long way to go, with enough noise from leaders like Dev and community members like ourselves, there’s no stopping the strides Indian women can make across all echelon.
To join the fight against the taxation of sanitary products, sign this petition