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Congress MP, NGO threaten to take govt to court if sanitary pads aren’t made tax-free under GST

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Activists are up in arms over the government’s plan to tax sanitary pads at the same level as cheese, cell phones and frozen meat products under the Goods and Services Tax. And there may be at least two legal petitions challenging this decision.

Barely a week before the Goods and Services Tax comes into effect, two groups are threatening to take the government to court over a tax rate they say is unjustified — the taxation of sanitary pads at 12 per cent and its classification as a ‘luxury’ item under the new tax regime.

Sushmita Dev, a Congress MP from Assam’s Silchar, says she’s taking the government to court if it refuses to tax sanitary pads at a more realistic level. “It is discriminatory and is a violation of right to life of a woman,” she told The Print.

Currently, the tax levied on sanitary pads varies from 5 per cent to 14.5 per cent depending on which state you buy them in. Under GST, which will become effective from July 1, goods will be taxed at the point of consumption rather than that of production. Under the new system, there will be a 12 per cent tax on sanitary pads.

Many activists have pointed out that under GST sanitary pads fall in the same tax bracket as cheese, cell phones and frozen meat products. They have pointed out that other cosmetic products used by women such as sindoor, bindis, kumkum, bangles and alta are exempt from tax.

Dev says she wants the government to treat sanitary pads as an essential commodity and either make them tax-free or to put them in the lowest tax bracket. She had earlier launched a campaign called #taxfreewings, which gained a lot of support on social media.

She has also met Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and is awaiting an official communication regarding her appeal. If turned down, the MP says she plans to challenge the government in court. Dev says that if the government had considered the data on the lack of menstrual hygiene, especially in rural areas, they would have injected some life into the slogan of ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’. But Dev isn’t the only one considering legal action.

A Mumbai-based non-profit called ‘SheSays’ had organised a social media campaign called #lahukalagaan urging the finance minister to abolish the tax on sanitary napkins under GST. Trisha Shetty, founder and CEO of SheSays, says that the campaign is not restricted just to social media and acquired a legal dimension after they sent a representation to the GST Council on sanitary napkins.

But of the 133 representations received, the tax rates for only 66 items were revised. Sanitary pads wasn’t one of them. Shetty says that the current scenario violates Article 21 (Right to life and personal liberty) of the constitution and says they will pursue legal options if their demand isn’t met.

“We will file a PIL with the Bombay High Court shortly,” Shetty says.

Activist Urmila Chanam, whose campaign ‘Breaking the Silence’ trains rural women on how to deal with menstruation, says the lack of menstrual hygiene is a major problem. “In India people don’t use toilets, a woman has no place to dry herself (while menstruating) …women have died due to lack of menstrual hygiene, it leads to urinary tract, reproductive tract infections an even cervical cancer,” Chanam says.

Lawyer and author, Gautam Bhatia, says that taxing sanitary pads violates Article 15(1) of the constitution since it amounts to discrimination on the grounds of sex. “When a tax regime burdens women in this fashion it ultimately disadvantages them, and in that sense ends up discriminating against them” he says.

According to him, tax regimes aim to incentivise a certain kind of behaviour, and influence the choices a society makes. They should thus be free from discrimination and subject to scrutiny.

However, the government says that the tax on sanitary pads hasn’t deviated much from the existing taxation regime. “Look at the current tax on sanitary pads. It (the new tax rate) is the same as before,” says G.G. Pai, Director of the Tax Research Unit at the Central Board of Excise and Customs.

Pai said that if pads were exempted from tax, then for a domestic manufacturer all the inputs would be taxed, leading to cascading taxation. This, according to Pai, could kill the scope of initiatives such as ‘Make in India’.

“Currently most pads are imported, and tax exemption will fill the pockets of MNCs,” Pai said. Pai said that instead of meeting the demand for tax exemption, the government could set up manufacturing units to encourage the use of sanitary pads.

Shetty says that the government is right about the fact that most pads available to women are imported and suggested a price cap on sanitary pads to prevent profits going to importers of sanitary pads.

“It is true that the market is dominated by MNCs, but when a women goes to a shop to buy sanitary pads, her options are limited. The government has to consider accessibility and affordability,” Shetty says. “Menstrual hygiene should be paramount. There are too many women who are dying and the government’s priority should be women.”

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