Kolkata, February 7, 2021: Swasthya Sathi, West Bengal state government’s ambitious health insurance scheme for the masses, seems to have received a favourable public response. It has also been drawing considerable media attention in a poll-bound state. But the experience of transgender social worker Sudipa Chakraborty with the scheme has been less than flattering and indicates that transgender inclusion in West Bengal is still to take off the blocks. Listen to this podcast recorded today, which includes a 13-minute interview with Sudipa on what transpired when she applied for the scheme.
Sudipa, who works for SAATHII, an NGO that promotes universal access to public health and social justice, applied for the scheme in December last year. She is a resident of Maheshtala municipality in South 24 Parganas district, in the south-western part of Greater Kolkata. While filling up the Swasthya Sathi application form at a local area booth set up for promoting the scheme, she discovered that other than a column for ‘sex’, there was no space to mention her gender identity. She discussed this with the government official receiving the application form at the booth and improvised a bit – she wrote ‘transgender’ in the column for ‘sex’ and submitted the form.
A month later, she received a confirmation message on her mobile phone stating that her application had been accepted. She was asked to visit the local area booth on January 27, 2021 to provide her biometric details. To her utter surprise, she found that the health insurance card issued to her mentioned her gender as ‘female’. She pointed this out to the officials concerned, but they were all taken aback. They said they were not aware there could be a ‘transgender’ option and insisted that she accept the card issued to her!
Sudipa did not relent and argued that all her identity documents mentioned ‘transgender’ as her gender identity and a mismatch with the health insurance card could be a serious matter, especially during a medical emergency. To her shock, the officials seemed to have little idea about the Supreme Court’s 2014 NALSA verdict on transgender identities and rights or of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. She had to also hear snide remarks about her gender identity, and one of the functionaries, most likely affiliated to a political party, insisted on taking her photograph. The reason – he could not believe that a transgender woman lived in the area and he wanted to show “how a transgender person looked like” to his higher-ups! Sudipa says she will never forget or forgive this insult to her personhood.
Eventually, the officials agreed to look into the matter and asked her to wait for further intimation. A week later, she was informed that the Swasthya Sathi officials were unable to address her concern and advised her to visit the office of the District Magistrate for South 24 Parganas. But Sudipa refused to do so: “I won’t run from one government office to another to beg for something that should be mine by right!”
Sudipa is now considering legal action to resolve the matter, not just for herself but also for other transgender community members who may face similar problems. Her stand is clear – the systems should be for the people and not the other way round!
The interview was narrated to Pawan Dhall over phone. The audio recording was edited by Pradosh Dash, who also contributed to this report. Both Sudipa Chakraborty and Pradosh Dash are part of the third pilot of the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (inset above) – Editor.
The article was cited by Dhriti Shankar, former student of queer studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in a paper titled Redefining ‘Safe Bodies’: Queering the Shifting Body Politics during the COVID-19 Pandemic published in the journal Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, May 9, 2022 – Editor.
About the main photo: A snapshot of the upper part of the Swasthya Sathi application form, with the ‘sex’ column head circled in red by the Varta editor. Photo and graphic credit: Pawan Dhall