The flawed sindoor vs sanitary pad GST debate and why it's not helping menstruating women

The moment you pit sindoor against sanitary pad, you create a fake chasm between these two sets of women. While the fact is women wearing sindoor are also the women who are menstruating.

Often things don’t stand for what they are but what they signify or represent.  Symbolism is an essential part of human  history and psyche. Or else why do you think farmers lay their lives for their land despite being offered compensation, or tribals gaurd their natural resources, their flora and fauna against corporate greed? Because the land and the trees represents more than just what it is – a source of livelihood. It’s sacred for them. The trees and the land is part of their existence as a community and individual. Similarly, the food we eat, the language we speak stand for much more than their immediate utility in our lives. There is a reason I dwell over the subject of symbolism  in an article on tax on sanitary napkins. 12 per cent GST on sanitary napkins is being pitted against zero tax on Sindoor, and that’s why the whole paragraph on symbolism.

Now, what does exactly sindoor stand for? Is it a symbol of bondage? A symbol of ownership of a man over a woman? For many of us, who have already given up wearing it, it’s just a vestige of a patriarchal society, everything against modernity. Yet, premium fashion companies like Lakme jump into selling sindoor to the modern bride.

It could also be a by-product of the way sindoor and the other symbols of suhaag like mangal sutra and bangles are glamourised by pop culture with dialogues like “ek chutki sindoor aurat ke sar ka taaz hota hai”

Sindoor could mean a lot of things for lot of people. For some it is irrelevant, for many sacred. But there is no denying that it is associated with certain culture and religion.

Many have condemned this move as regressive one.

In fact, the government and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have been accused of valuing the role of marriage in a woman’s life more than her personal hygiene.

However, it would be unfair to single this government out for being apathetic to women’s menstrual needs. Earlier a tax of over 14 per cent was charged on pads, now it it has come down to 12 per cent.

As for the zero tax on sindoor, there is an economic argument too. An article in Daily O quotes, economist Saqib Hasan as saying. “Sindoor and bangles are manufactured by cottage industries. These industries do not take inputs from anyone but sanitary napkins are manufactured by corporates.” The fact is traditionally sindoor has always been available for minimal cost.  For Rs 5- Rs 10 you can get a whole year’s supply of sindoor, even before GST was rolled out.

If you are the modern bride who uses liquid sindoor made by cosmetic brands you would still be paying anything between Rs 100 to Rs 150 for a pack, which will again last you a year. The fact that the modern bride, who probably earns her own money, makes her choices and pairs shorts with chuda (something unthinkable in rural India), chooses to wear sindoor. So, the idea of sindoor being seen as regressive and patriarchal entity is not really agreed upon by all women. Many of us who think that it is, have already given up wearing it by choice.

The moment you pit sindoor against sanitary pad, you create a fake chasm between these two sets of women. While the fact is women wearing sindoor are also the women who are menstruating. Any kind of lowering of price on anything is going to benefit them. It’s not that a woman who was not buying Sindoor will suddenly start buying it because it is tax free now. Just like making sanitary napkin tax free will not so drastically reduce the price that a family of daily labourers will be able to afford it.

Now that we have gone through the unnecessary and the controversial part of the debate, let’s address the real question – should sanitary pads be taxed? No they shouldn’t be taxed. In fact, they should be made available free of cost. Because menstruation is a biological condition, not a choice. Women should not be made to pay for something they really have no control over. I also feel the same way for deliveries. For many middle income couples, who do not want to go to a government hospital as the facilities can be quite bad, child birth is an expensive proposition.

However, there is a catch in this argument also.  Merely making sanitary napkins tax free or entirely free of cost wouldn’t immediately mean that more women start using it. Often the argument is that girls dropout of schools because  they don’t have access to sanitary pads once they hit puberty. But there are obvious flaws in the argument. In an article in Swarajya magazine, Sinu Joseph rightly points out: “The link between the absence of sanitary napkins to menstrual hygiene and therefore school drop-outs is really like a poorly written movie script. Why would a girl stop going to school because she doesn’t use a Sanitary Pad? And if school dropouts are due to menstruation, then what about the boys? In most States of India, we have more boys dropping out of school than girls (according to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan survey of 2007). So are we going to distribute Sanitary Napkins to boys then?”.  Government schools are already introducing young girls to the concept of menstrual hygiene by distributing pads in schools for free.

For the rural woman who can afford a good pack of sanitary napkin, making a transition from cloth to pads is a major lifestyle change.  That would require major counselling and coaxing. Even to make city women change their menstrual hygiene choices is a big deal. And I am saying this from personal experience.

I was introduced to tampons at the age of 24 by a senior colleague of mine. I came unprepared for river rafting and camping in Rishikesh but didn’t want to miss the fun because I started bleeding before due date. So, my colleague gave me this magical thing called tampon. I was really scared the moment I saw it. But I was ready to give it a shot all for the fun of river rafting. Since then I have switched to using tampons and have recommended it to all friends and cousin sisters, particularly those who love swimming. But alas! the tampon evangelist in me has given up. Because none of them were ready to take the plunge of inserting something in their vagina. Many even thought, virgin girls might rupture their hymen. So, if that’s the state of affairs and fear among modern city bred women, you can understand the herculean effort that needs to go into addressing the reservations of rural women. Further,  in rural areas disposal of pads is also a huge issue.

Another drawback of pads is they aren’t the most eco-friendly of things. According to a Hindustan Times report,  90 percent of a sanitary napkin is plastic. The publication quotes Ecofemme, an organisation working on menstrual hygiene management, ” the padding in napkins is mostly wood pulp mixed with super absorbent polymers and the leak-proof layer is made from an impermeable polyethylene”. These are all non-biodegradable material. The solution to this is using reusable cotton pads or menstrual cups. The latter is a completely new idea in India. If women have reservations about tampons and pads, menstrual cups seem like a battle for the long haul.

However, till the time we find a solution, pads remain the most acceptable of menstrual hygiene products. And for this reason they should be made tax-free and even distributed free. More and more awareness about its usage in rural areas is needed and wiser ways of disposal must be found.

While, we do all this, we need not pit it against zero per cent GST on sindoor. Because it really doesn’t help the cause of the menstruating woman. All we need is a genuine campaign without any unnecessary agenda. We need to go to court, litigate, we need to be reaching out to the government without a prejudiced mind with the simple demand of slashing or freeing sanitary napkins of taxes. Because the moment you bring in sindoor and Hinduism, this government might just treat it is as a non-serious subject. They might even presume they have done something great to appeal to their saffron vote-bank. Affecting changes in society sometimes need tactic, not slogans, cliched binaries or empty theatrics.