Zero GST Has Made Sanitary Napkins Cheaper But Are They Safer?


Zero GST Has Made Sanitary Napkins Cheaper But Are They Safer?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A few days ago, at the 28th meeting of the GST Council, finance minister Piyush Goyal announced that sanitary pads would now be tax-free. At least someone in the government seems to be listening. This exemption came after a year of protests, petitions, and outrage over sanitary products – including sanitary pads, towels, and tampons – attracting a 12 per cent tax and being branded as “luxury products” instead of being considered essential items, like condoms. Because, you know, most of us can’t help menstruating.   

Immediately after the decision, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble – the two brands that dominate the Indian sanitary pad market – promised a two to three per cent price cut, claiming that they were “committed to pass on the GST rate reduction to consumers”. Activists hailed it as a major victory, adding that the tax exemption will make sanitary pads affordable and “help girls and women to stay in school, their jobs, to practise proper menstrual hygiene”.

The decision and the restless campaigning is welcome – if for no other reason than fostering a conversation around menstruation, a topic that we largely consider taboo. When was the last time, say, that you asked your brother or father to buy you a pack of XL pads? Unlike sanitary pads that are always wrapped in brown or black bags, menstrual hygiene is thankfully not under the covers anymore.

But in a country where only 12 per cent of menstruating women can afford to use sanitary pads, does tax exemption really solve the glaring problem of menstrual hygiene?

Along with being chemically mysterious, sanitary pads are also environmentally taxing.

On an average, an Indian woman will use about 17,000 sanitary pads in a lifetime. Yet we have very zero idea about the life cycle of a pad. While every sanitary pad advertisement cheerily proclaims “eight- to 24-hour protection”, misleading consumers into believing that they can be used for that long, pads in reality, should ideally be changed every three hours.  

This glaring absence of awareness about menstrual hygiene also stems from the fact that in India, sanitary pads don’t fall under the medical goods category yet. This allows manufacturers massive leeway to not have to disclose the number and kind of chemicals used in the pads. With no conclusive metric of the acceptable pH level of different pads, it remains unknown whether sanitary pads are even hygienic in the first place.

When I bring up these subjects in conversation with liberal, educated, and “woke” people, I could be speaking gibberish for all they care. Even when I tell them that in India, the safety of a sanitary pad is tested against standards that haven’t been updated since 1980. These basic tests are only equipped to confirm whether the pad works and not underline if it is harmful. Very few women in our country are discussing the cocktail of chemicals in our pads – dioxin, furan, pesticides – and instead are turning a blind eye to its perils.

Along with being chemically mysterious, sanitary pads are also environmentally taxing. Over a billion sanitary pads make their way to landfills and fields every month. For something that is disposable, it generates a staggering amount of non-biodegradable waste that takes years to break down. What’s even worse is that most women aren’t taught eco-friendly ways to dispose used pads, leading to them clubbing it with regular waste, putting waste workers at a massive health risk. It’s very far from a “hygiene product” for those folks.

For most women who find it difficult to imagine their periods without pads, cost and features remain the top priority. The GST exemption too aims to serve this mentality. It claims to give women access to a cheaper pad, but not necessarily a better one.

It’s great that our elected representatives no longer think of a normal bodily function as a luxury. We should do our bit and use this opportunity to delve further into the discussion, to ask the right questions, to interrogate whether a pad that claims to be “eco-friendly” actually lives up to its promise. It is now up to us to begin a campaign to make manufacturing safety guidelines mandatory. It is now time to ask if the pad you’re about to use for five days isn’t harming your body.

Edited by Poulomi Das