Opinion

Tax Free Wings

Women’s empowerment by far is one the most vexed issues in any nation. However developed or underdeveloped, liberal or conservative a nation may be, the difficulty with empowering women is a challenge that cannot simply be tackled by any government by fiscal and legal provisions like in the case of poverty, health or for that matter corruption. Empowerment is really about equality of opportunity but to be treated equally one has to first reach the doorstep to that opportunity. Most of the obstacles that stand in the way of getting to that doorstep are often outside the legislative authority of a government. To change the fixed mindset of assigning a particular role to a particular gender i.e. Gender bias – cannot be changed by the efforts of the govt alone. But there is a role the govt can play.

Recently Eastern Chronicle, an English daily in Assam carried a story where a young girl in Baksa district in Assam died allegedly due to maggots in her stomach. Repeated use of unhygienic means like cloth leads to formation of bacteria. She was kept away from medical care as her parents suspected she was pregnant due to the swelling in her stomach till her pain became unbearable and eventually doctors at the Guwahati Medical college could not save her. The doctors confirmed that ‘she died due to use of unhealthy, bacteria prone cloths being used during her periods.’ Here is a heartbreaking incident where a young girl who is guaranteed the right to life did not make it to that doorstep to knock on an opportunity.

Also read: Online petition to FM Arun Jaitley for removing taxes on sanitary napkins

This is where the government can make a big difference by making a necessity like a hygienic sanitary napkins not only available to every girl but also affordable to every girl. Only 12 % of the women in India use sanitary napkins. Approximately 88% of women in India use homemade products (e.g., old cloth or rags) to manage their menstruation. The main reasons for using cloth-based product inter alia is lack of access to or affordability for high quality commercial sanitary pads, and lack of sufficient information about pads.  It may be shocking but some extreme cases women also use hay, ash sand, ash, wood shavings, newspapers, dried leaves, or plastic. According to a study 70% of women in India say their family cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.

Many state governments like Haryana, Goa, Pondicherry have taken that heartening step by making sanitary napkins tax free. Many people like Arunachalam Murunganatham have spear headed the right of women to menstrual hygiene. I applaud those efforts. The question now really is whether the Government of India in unfolding the historical concept of ‘one nation one tax’ follow suit in making sanitary napkins tax free.

I started a campaign by asking the people of my country to sign a petition digitally on change.org to convince Sh. Arun Jaitley ji the Finance Minister of India to make bio degradable sanitary napkins tax free and the non bio degradable napkins to be included in the lowest bracket of GST. The petition got huge support in a very short period more than 2 lac people signed it. I also garnered the support of Public representatives across party lines right from Rahul Gandhi ji to Supriya Sule ji from Kavita Rao ji to Jay Panda. Varun Gandhi Ji tweeted that this calls for support across party lines. The Health Minister and Women and Child development minister of India both have extended their support. Leaders of the opposition INC both in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have supported it.

There are some who refused to support it on the ground that it was only helping corporates not the beneficiary although that argument cannot stand in the case of an indirect tax which is always transferred to the customer who has no bargaining power and has to pay it irrespective of the customers purchasing power.

I will meet the Finance Minister of India in the next few days before the next GST Council meeting to impress upon him that although to exempt tax on sanitary napkins will definitely dent the coffers of the exchequer but the government can by accepting the proposal inject life into the provisions of our constitution that tells every girl that she has a right to life and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of her gender. If a constitution can go far enough to allow special provisions for protection for women and children there is no reason why the government can’t take the opportunity to make sanitary napkins tax free in recognising that a women has no choice when she menstruates and menstrual Hygiene must be recognised as her right to life.

Also read: Make sanitary napkins tax-free, LahukaLagaan campaign trends on Twitter

GST is a historical step as is being professed by many in making taxation on goods and services seamless but the recent statement by the Finance Minister that there are no surprises in the implementation of GST tells me no real history is being created and specially not for the many adolescent girls who may have died like the girl from Baksa. My only appeal when I meet the Finance Minister will be, in this governments own well advertised words, ‘Beti Bachao…….. ??

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Sushmita Dev is a politician and a member of the Indian National Congress. She is a member of Parliament representing Silchar, Assam. She tweets at @sushmitadevmp

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