At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” — thus spoke Jawaharlal Nehru on the eve of India’s independence on August 15, 1947. The current government appears to have taken a cue from Pandit Nehru’s speech and has a propensity to usher in changes, though not of such magnitude as liberating India from over 300 years of colonial rule, at midnight. On November 8, 2016, at the stroke of midnight, old currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 became invalid through an act of demonetisation. At the stroke of midnight on June 30, the long-awaited Goods and Services Tax was launched at a joint session of Parliament. Termed as a “good and simple” tax in the presentation that followed the launch, GST is definitely good in principle but perhaps not as simple as the government is trying to project. Relatively simpler than the earlier multi-tax structure, the GST is still complex to understand, specially for a lay person; and how it’s going to impact different sections of society is perhaps not fully understood yet. Let’s therefore examine GST, or some aspects of it, through the lens of gender. While talking about women’s empowerment and a more equitable distribution of power and resources between the genders, it is imperative to analyse key government policies through the gender perspective.
The government’s economic policies are key indicators of its intent and reflect its fundamental political ideology. Through taxation or exemptions, the government indicates its priorities, or the lack of it. To begin with, there are no women members in the GST council, though that is by default rather than by design. The council is headed by the Union finance minister and includes the minister of state for revenue and state finance ministers. None of them happened to be a woman. It’s surprising that in 70 years of independence, we have had only one woman, Mrs Indira Gandhi, presenting the Union Budget, that too in her capacity as Prime Minister holding additional charge of the finance ministry. The first female finance minister, perhaps the only one so far, in independent India was Dr Upjinder Kaur in Punjab, appointed by the Akali Dal government in 2010. Despite having had a woman Prime Minister, women politicians in India haven’t been able to break through the glass ceiling and penetrate the male dominion of this key ministry. There are women in the GST council secretariat, of course, as by default IRS officers are part of the secretariat. But the empowered body to fix tax slabs is the all-male GST council. So no wonder the council overlooked the demand to put sanitary napkins in the exemption category.
There has been a prolonged campaign by women activists and women political leaders to exempt sanitary napkins from taxes. Congress MP Sushmita Dev along with others collected over three lakh signatures in an online campaign. The government’s own women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi recommended it. The GST council not only ignored the suggestion, but put sanitary napkins, sanitary towels and tampons at the higher tax bracket of 12 per cent, making it even more expensive. A vitally important aspect of personal health and hygiene for women worldwide, sanitary napkins could hardly be considered a “luxury” item. It is estimated that nearly 355 million women are between post-pubescent and pre-menopausal age, and only 12 per cent of these have access to sanitary napkins. The rest primarily rely on old clothes and rags, even leaves and sand. Not only unhygienic, the lack of proper protection during menstruation restricts women’s mobility. It is estimated that one out of four girls drop out of school when they start their period, and miss as much as 20 per cent of their school year due to menstruation. Society’s discomfort in dealing with and acknowledging issues related to menstruation adds on to the psychological and physical distress faced by women during periods. In India, we need a sanitary napkin revolution, making it accessible and affordable for every woman. Not just hygiene, it is also essential to maintain a woman’s privacy and dignity. Rather than promote its usage by subsidising it if necessary, the government turns a blind eye to the problem.
Domestic appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, food processors like mixers and grinders; gadgets that are considered essential for every middle class household, are put in the highest category of 28 per cent. This will increase the tax burden by an additional 2-3 per cent. The government considers these as luxury items without taking into consideration the fact that they have become essential for middle class working women. The application of technology for domestic use has been a major help and stimulus for women’s emancipation, initially in the West, later in the expanding middle class of developing countries like India, easing her labour and freeing her time considerably from domestic duties, thus allowing her to work outside the home, enabling her financial empowerment. Increasing tax on domestic appliances is regressive from the gender perspective. In contrast, the government put items like sindoor, alta, bindi and bangles, items essentially associated with a married Hindu woman, into the exempt category. Through its tax priorities, the government appears to reflect, reinforce and incentivise deep-rooted societal stereotypes that typecast women into their traditional roles of wife and mother. Women would be far happier with a tax structure that enables and incentivises her to become financially independent so that she can buy sindoor and bindis even with enhanced taxes. The categorisation of goods and services into tax slabs is an ongoing process, and there will definitely be corrective measures. One can only hope that in future, the government will incentivise products and services that help build a generation of empowered women free from societal stereotypes, free from economic dependency, and free from all fears, including the fear of bloodstained clothes during their menstruation....