Kolkata, July 24, 2018:
The 28th GST Council meeting was held on July 21, 2018. A few hours later, social media and the public, at large, celebrated the decision of the council to exempt sanitary napkins from its previous 12% GST charge, effectively declassifying it as a “luxury” commodity. The historic move puts India ahead of a number of countries, including the USA which continues to levy the much-debated ‘tampon tax’ on menstrual hygiene products in a majority of its states. However, the verdict has not been received favourably by a significant number of individuals who have criticized it on the ground that it is not sufficiently intersectional in nature.
According to a survey conducted by Delhi-based Women Health Organisation, over 57% of women in Hyderabad have borrowed a sanitary pad from a friend, colleague or family member at some point. A general lack of awareness and the social stigma associated with the issue are very much to blame, but the most culpable determinant, by far, happens to be the fact that sanitary napkins continue to be out of the financial reach of considerable Indian women. A prevalent culture of poor menstrual hygiene leads to a rise in the number of cases of UTIs, STDs, fatal infections, and a host of other physiological problems. One-fourth of the total number of cervical cancer cases worldwide can be traced back to India, and around 2 million Indians were found to be HIV-positive in 2016.
To be fair, both the present and past governments have come forward with well-planned schemes to tackle the problem in concrete terms. For example, the Scheme for Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene, under the National Health Mission, coupled with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, was implemented to promote the usage of sanitary napkins by distributing them at subsidized prices, as also for encouraging their proper disposal. Similarly, various NGOs and non-governmental projects, such as Jatan Sansthan and Shakti respectively, have also stepped up for the cause. The statistics, however, prove that the efforts made have not been enough.
Critics point out that these schemes focused on a short-term resolution of the situation and were not implemented in a holistic fashion, thus, setting themselves up for failure. The common consensus among them is that the GST exemption, too, is nothing but a mere eye-wash; something along the lines of: “create the problem, offer the solution”.
What, then, is the solution? Congress MP Sushmita Dev believes that the approach needs to be two-pronged: affordability and access, and awareness. Moreover, the Government needs to acknowledge the fact that two separate sets of the solution are required to address the matter for the urban poor on the one hand, and the rural poor, on the other. It is, hence, imperative that proactive steps be taken to simultaneously cover all bases that have led to such a poor performance of India, in terms of menstrual hygiene, instead of peeling apart the issue one layer at a time.