Lesser citizens

Print edition : July 12, 2013

Transgenders attending a regional public hearing for transgender/ hijra communities in New Delhi last year. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Transgenders begging for alms in Bangalore. The announcement of piecemeal welfare measures by the state has adversely impacted the traditional occupations of transgenders. Photo: Sampath Kumar G P

The meagre pension for transgenders announced by the Delhi government is an unimaginative measure that will not help solve the myriad problems faced by the community.

THE Delhi government’s announcement in its Budget proposals of a monthly “pension” of Rs.1,000 for transgenders who have been residing in the city for more than three years is an illustration of the half-hearted nature of policy commitments towards the community by State governments. The new pension scheme, designed on the lines of a similar scheme announced by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in 2011, does not adequately factor in contemporary realities.

The transgender community in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) as well as vast parts of north India is considerably diverse in terms of gender identity, livelihoods and relationship with immediate family members and society at large. Its access to education, health and other state resources continues to be severely limited.

The announcement of the scheme itself has generated a not-so-favourable response from community members, who complain of severe discrimination in government hospitals and residential colonies, continuing harassment by law enforcement personnel and difficulties in claiming the rights of citizens. In fact, some members of the hijra community complained that the announcement of such piecemeal measures, ostensibly to improve their lives, has adversely impacted their traditional occupations. In contrast, the State governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have adopted a more holistic approach towards increasing access to state resources for transgenders.

In the public imagination, complex identities of gender ranging from hijra to transgender are all lumped into one category. Unfortunately, government policy also seems to feed on these generalisations rather than focus on the specific needs of different groups.

The primary problem in the Delhi government’s pension proposal is identifying transgender persons who would be its beneficiaries. Speaking to Frontline, Firoz Khan, who is with the Centre for Legal Aid and Rights, said: “Some transsexual persons are still undergoing the process of sexual re-assignment surgery. It takes about 18 months to two years for the process to be completed. How do you prove your gender identity to the government authorities in this case? Also, the scheme requires the beneficiaries to be resident in Delhi for three years. A large section of the hijra and transgender population still does not have voter identity cards. There were no attempts to publicise the MCD’s pension scheme of 2011; as a result, very few transgenders could avail themselves of the scheme.”

Anjan Joshi, executive director of the Society for Peoples’ Awareness, Care and Empowerment (SPACE), highlighted how government policy did not address the specific needs of different categories of identity in the community. “The transgender and hijra community is hardly a homogeneous entity. In Delhi-NCR, there are members of the hijra community who are engaged in traditional occupations such as toli-badhai (giving blessings to married couples, new-born children, etc.). There are transgenders who engage in sex-work for a living. Then there are transgenders who are homeless and destitute, and are forced to beg on the streets. It is this last group which is the most vulnerable and in need of protection from the state. Each of these groups has different occupations and different sets of problems. Thus, using an umbrella term such as ‘transgender’ in the lexicon of government policy formulations is problematic,” he said.

The compulsion of fixing an identity so as to get access to government resources is a recurrent one which has not been addressed by policy formulations. Sonia Sharma, a member of the hijra community living in Durgapur Chowk in Shahdara (Delhi) who does the toli-badhai in the locality, recounted: “I had to identify as a woman to get a voter ID card in 2010. But when I enter the ladies compartment of a train, I meet with smirks and stares. In a government hospital, I cannot get admitted to a women’s ward.” This is an instance of how the government forces you to choose a gender identity without making available the benefits that come with it.

The way in which state intervention by the Delhi government is designed disregards the diverse needs of people engaged in different occupations within the community. For instance, Sonia Sharma feels that not only is the pension scheme inadequate but it in fact poses a risk to her traditional occupation of toli-badhai. “I have been engaged in this work for almost 16 years, and I manage to earn about Rs.20,000-Rs.30,000 a month. Following the announcement of the pension schemes, many households deny us money.” Sonia supports her aged mother and sister with her income.

For Ruby, a transgender person who organises dance programmes at jagarans (religious festivals) and manages to earn anything between Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 for every performance, discrimination in public places is a larger concern. “Once, a guard at the metro station asked me why I was getting into the ladies compartment. I have to take the metro every week to go to Pitampura for laser treatment. I remember an instance when a woman in the ladies compartment pointed at me and told her son, ‘Look, this is a hijra’. This is really humiliating. Why can’t there be separate coaches for transgender persons in metro trains?”

For Krishna, a hijra who has been engaged in toli-badhai for 18 years in Loni in Uttar Pradesh and who comes to Delhi-NCR occasionally for work, security is a major concern. Krishna, who hails from a Thakur family, was ostracised by her five brothers and parents, and consequently she left her family to live in a desolate house on the outskirts of the town. “There have been many instances of transgenders and hijras being abducted and gang-raped in this locality,” she recounted.

Often, the manner in which state intervention is designed fails to take into account alternative relationships and bonds that transgender persons and hijras have forged outside of the structure of the traditional heterosexual family. Ambalik Roy, who is with the Centre for Legal Aid and Rights, highlighted one such instance: “In the Nand Nagari fire incident in Delhi in 2011 in which several hijras lost their lives, the compensation went to the next of kin and ‘family’. Many in the transgender community are ostracised by their biological families and they receive emotional and physical support from people in the dera (hijra settlement) with whom they forge familial bonds. But legally neither the law nor the government recognise these ties as familial.”

Access to resources

The primary concern impacting the lives of transgenders in Delhi-NCR is access to state resources such as education and health and prevention of harassment by law-enforcing agencies. Laya Medhini, who is with the Delhi-based Centre for Legal Aid and Rights, pointed out, “From our public hearings in partnership with the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], conducted over the last year, it was clear that the major concerns of the community were access to education and health, understanding the need for legal recognition for the transgender, increased awareness, access to social welfare schemes and an end to harassment by law enforcement agencies.”

The most significant concern that emerged out of interviews with transgender persons and hijras was the apathy of government hospitals towards them. Mallika, a transgender person who also works with a number of homeless transgenders, recalled the utter lack of sympathy of the doctors at the Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) Hospital in Delhi. “Last month, I took to GTB hospital a 22-year-old transgender who was lying in a state of paralysis on the street. A senior doctor refused to start treatment until the patient underwent an HIV test. In another incident in 2009, a transgender person who needed to undergo colostomy, a complicated surgical procedure, visited the LNJP hospital in Delhi every day for almost three months but the doctors refused to treat her. It was only when some members of our organisation approached the hospital and threatened to call the media that she was finally admitted.”

Mallika is pursuing her B.Com from an open university. On being asked if she wanted to pursue a regular course from a government institution, she said: “I would love to, but it is almost impossible for transgenders to go to regular schools and colleges as of now because of the discrimination that persists.”

Even the night shelter for the homeless and the destitute in Delhi-NCR are gender-segregated and there is no separate space for transgenders. Firoz Khan recounted one such case: “A transgender person who had acute health issues—she was HIV positive and had tuberculosis, and mental health problems—was denied admission in the shelter homes in December last year because of these factors. ”

Another prevalent form of discrimination is on account of the lack of rights in the matter of property ownership. This leads to persistent harassment by real estate agents and builders even if transgender persons contribute to the family income. The case of Ruby illustrates the extent of this humiliation and injustice. Ruby lives with her parents and two brothers in a flat in the Brahmpuri area of Delhi. A builder, who was allegedly eyeing their property, tried to arm-twist them to sell off their flat. However, the family did not give in to the pressure tactics. “The builder then started threatening us and tried to create resentment in the neighbourhood by saying that a hijra family was living in a ‘good neighbourhood’. People would call me and my family members names. Finally, I lodged a complaint with the Usmanpur police this month with the help of other members of the community.”

Other States’ approach

The Tamil Nadu government has taken a more holistic approach towards the welfare of transgender persons. Priya Babu, a transgender writer based in Chennai, elaborated on the State government’s initiatives for transgenders: “The Tamil Nadu Transgender Welfare Board was constituted in 2008 with eight members of the community and 11 members of various departments of the State government. The significant measures introduced by this board include special self-help groups for transgenders, free sex change operations in government hospitals, free education in government schools and colleges, low-cost housing and loans for starting small businesses. The policies were started when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was in power, but the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has continued with these progressive policies. Though there is some discrimination in the villages, the government initiatives have had a major impact on the lives of transgender persons in the cities. The welfare of transgenders has found mention in the election manifestos of the two major parties in the State.”

The Karnataka government has made some token policy commitments for the welfare of transgenders, but they have not yet been implemented fully. Akkai Padmashaly of Sangama, an organisation working with sexual minorities in Bangalore, told Frontline: “There was a government order in 2010 which spoke about equal access to opportunities in education, employment, low-cost housing, and pensions. But these commitments are yet to be translated into action. A large section of the bureaucracy is still insensitive to transgenders.”

The discourse of “welfare” for transgenders has to move beyond mere tokenism to address complex issues of identity and traditional livelihoods. It should also address the larger question of how and where the state can intervene. State interventions have been designed in such a way that help for transgenders are conceived only in terms of “doles” and “welfare” rather than access to state resources as equal citizens, and this does little on the ground to improve the lot of the community.