Sanitary Protection, Poverty and Politics

The Indian Government continues to look at ways to develop the supply of sanitary protection to poorer rural areas through its ASHA scheme. Euromonitor International looks at the motivation behind this move as well as its implications for the developing sanitary protection market.

India lags in sanitary protection provision

Due to low income levels and far from widespread availability of products, the Indian sanitary protection market is tiny in relation to its vast population of women between the ages of 14-64 years of age. Average per capita spend remains stubbornly low at just US$0.6 and is more comparable with sub-Saharan African, Cameroon for example reporting US$0.2 for the same per capita rate in 2011. India continues to compare badly with consumption patterns in the wider Asia Pacific region. Women between 14-64 in China, for example, spend US$17.4 annually on sanitary protection products.

Certainly low income levels are the key factor with female consumers, on average earning US$750 per annum, far less than the US$1,000 typically requisite for consumers to more easily purchase these products. Low usage is far more pronounced in rural areas where incomes are sometimes four times less than their urban dwelling counterparts, a gap that appears to be widening as Indian agricultural development has been far less pronounced than its industrial and service sectors. The Indian government has continued to invest in rural areas through its Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) program. Progress has been slow, however, meaning rural dwelling women still have far less opportunity to access these products or afford them. As a result, sales in poorer North and North East India are less than a third of those in the more urban and industrially developed south of the country.

An urban-rural split

In 2011 the Indian sanitary protection market grew by 13% in value terms, ahead of the Asia Pacific regional average of 10%. More rapid growth in India has been held back by the fact that growth is still predominantly an urban phenomenon where consumers are on higher than average incomes and have access to modern grocery stores (health and beauty specialist taking 60% of value sales while supermarkets/hypermarkets took a 25% share in 2011). With almost 70% of the Indian population living in rural areas, the vast majority of the population currently has little or no access to sanitary protection. This is an income and availability issue that has been compounded by cultural norms which often see women ostracised during menstruation.

Education has been seen as one key route for the betterment of rural women but social norms continue to act as a ‘Catch 22’. There remains a widespread belief that menstruation is unclean in rural society, which as studies has shown, results in up to a quarter of school girls dropping out of school when their periods start. Moreover, a lack of income means school girls are left to use unsanitary cloths, which lead to high rates of infection and consequently more time taken off school. With this in mind the Indian Health and Family Welfare Ministry has developed its ASHA scheme, which is already running in 150 districts since 2010 and due for expansion in 2012, with the ultimate aim of providing 200 million women with 100 sanitary napkins every year. These are to be offered free for those below the poverty line and at a highly subsidised 1 rupee rate to other village women.

A win, win situation

Whilst ASHA is the most high profile of a number of similar schemes already in operation in India, the government is still facing a huge task to educate consumers of the importance of improved sanitary hygiene. Without significant investment in advertising and health road shows designed to promote as well as debunk the myths of modern sanitary protection, this very laudable initiative could still find that it has been cast on stony ground. In urban areas also the 1% increase in excise duty placed on hygiene products announced for fiscal 2012-13 (now 6%) does seem at odds with the prevailing trend towards increasing access. True the increase will affect urban consumers for the most part but this was one of the criticisms levelled at ASHA initially, namely it ignored vast numbers of impoverished urban women. With increasing wages and higher income tax threshold this increase is unlikely to dampen increased medium term demand which is likely to see demand in the retail market continue to grow