Getting GST right

I will always remember the midnight launch of Goods and Services Tax (GST) on June 30/July 1 as the moment when my government let down a girl who died in Assam’s Baksa district. Maggots had found their way into her stomach because she had used a rag during her periods. Her parents refused to treat her as they thought she was pregnant. Eventually it was too late even though she was taken to a hospital.

The road to rights

When I started my online petition on March 8, requesting the Union Finance Minister to make eco-friendly sanitary pads tax-free and reduce the tax bracket of other napkins from 12-14% to 5%, I found more than three lakh people joining me in my appeal. I also found support from across the political spectrum. The Union Health and the Women and Child Development Ministers also agreed that it was a proposal with merit.

The Finance Minister readily accepted that it was a cause mooted by activists and non-governmental organisations, but it did not resonate with members of the GST Council that for an adolescent girl, an affordable sanitary napkin is actually essential for her well-being. Over the months, activists, writers and I have thrown pertinent facts and figures at the government trying to convince them that this tax exemption would be an important health intervention. That a woman needs all means possible to help her during menstruation can only be forcefully argued by women.

I have argued in Parliament on many an occasion to deliberate on issues of women’s empowerment using data on the dismal percentage of women in the workforce, the high percentage of school dropouts among girls, and the rise in gender crimes. These have always been received by the government with sensitivity, and have drawn assurances about the government’s commitment. While we continue to focus on and highlight the problem, the solution is complex. The right to equality is not an easy right to ensure and enforce.

My empowerment has to be about saving me from damage and not saving me after I am damaged. It has to be about building my ability to seize an opportunity in education, employment or a seat in a panchayat. It has to be about minimising and containing my inherent disadvantages because of my gender, which stand in my way.

The Constitution recognises this and allows women a head start in life. Yet, girls have to drop out of school because menstruation is a stigma; they have to stay away from education because they have no restroom in school; and there is female foeticide because a girl is considered to be a liability. The real empowerment of women does not need doles and handouts. It needs interventions that tackle the problem.

We are a country where many women are still dependent on cloth-based products as they cannot access high quality, expensive personal hygiene products or lack sufficient information about sanitary pads. If a woman has to use hay, ash, sand, wood shavings, newspaper, dried leaves, or even plastic as a substitute for a hygiene product, despite subsidised napkins being distributed under the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM) in many States, I hope the government is compelled to think about the limitations of their prevailing interventions in this regard. Their system of distribution is failing to ensure last-mile delivery.

Ensure last-mile access

In India, 70% of women say that their families cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. Distribution of free or subsidised napkins in schools by States is a good step but cannot solve the problem. If the government has to push the social campaign ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, it tells us that there are more girls out of school than in them in India. A government that champions the idea of disinvestment/privatisation of its own businesses in the name of greater business efficacy should have realised that commercial, private sector entities can deliver better in rural and remote markets if the product becomes cheaper and within the purchasing power of the economically weaker sections.

The celebrations of the midnight GST launch have numbed many. The harsh truth is that ultimately, every manufacturer shifts the burden of cost to the consumer. If a huge budget of the NRHM and its network can’t ensure last-mile delivery to the women of rural India or the urban poor, it could have been achieved at a lesser cost by reducing the tax on sanitary napkins, where only 12% of women use sanitary napkins. This could have worked as an incentive for private manufacturers. It could have been a significant intervention.

Where some 11,000-plus products were discussed by the GST Council, I have no doubt the members did have women in mind — bangles and bindis have been exempted from GST. Whether they had women empowerment in mind, I don’t know.

Sushmita Dev is a Congress MP in the Lok Sabha

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2020 9:13:58 PM |

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