S. Lipsa Rao, who is 30 years old, used to earn a living by seeking alms in trains in Odisha. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that was imposed by the central government in March 2020 badly affected her work. The trains stopped running and she was unable to step out of home to look for alternative sources of income.
Lipsa’s friends, who were also transgender and lived with her, went through the same ordeal. They were unable to pay the monthly house rent, which caused tremendous stress.
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More than a year has passed since the first lockdown, and we are again in lockdown, facing a devastating second wave of the pandemic. Nothing much seems to have changed for Lipsa’s friends. What lessons have been learnt from last year with regard to the concerns of transgender communities? For instance, the loss of livelihood was barely addressed after the lockdown was lifted last year, and the situation seems to be back to what it was.
The government response in particular seems stuck in time. Last year the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of India provided a direct bank transfer of Rs.1500 per person to transgender persons across India. According to community members and NGO officials in Odisha, this support was provided just twice through the lockdown and many individuals in the state did not receive the money because they missed the deadline for registration needed for eligibility. Some others who did register also did not receive the funds for reasons unknown.
Exactly, the same support has been announced again this year. The process is reported to be more streamlined this time around. This may seem appreciable, but apart from the question of the paltry amount, what about inflation? Could the amount not have been increased this time around?
At the state level, the Odisha government had planned to provide monthly pension of Rs.500-900 to around 5,000 transgender persons through the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana. There seems to have been greater success in this programme, though NGOs have had to step in to resolve digital literacy and transgender identity certification related barriers while applying for the pension.
Odisha also has a progressive education and livelihood support programme for transgender people called Sweekruti. Though it was announced in 2018, its implementation has been slow, and since last year impeded by the lockdowns. Access to ration cards has been another challenge for transgender persons for a variety of reasons. Clearly, if it were not for the civil society relief efforts that provided monetary, ration, health and psychosocial support, the transgender communities in Odisha would have had a worse fate.
The governmental response in terms of bank transfers and pensions brings up another question. Stigma around their gender identity is often the reason many transgender women lose educational opportunities, are compelled to take up exploitative occupations, and in the process lose dignity and security as well. But how dignifying is the government ‘support’ for transgender persons during the lockdown? When will all governments address in right earnest the root causes behind the situation that transgender people are in, and move from charity to honouring rights?
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The loss of livelihood because of the lockdowns last year was not the first time that Lipsa had faced a life challenge. She was born into a lower middle class family in Jatni, a town in the Khordha district of Odisha. She used to have a part-time job in a five star hotel, and also managed to pursue her studies in college. But she had to leave the job because she was repeatedly asked by the hotel staff to work the night shift, which made her uncomfortable.
In a multiple setback, she also had to discontinue higher studies because of incessant bullying and harassment by her classmates around her gender expression. Around the same time, as she became more expressive about her gender identity, she faced abuse at home. “When my family realized that I, their son, was transgender, they started abusing me emotionally and physically,” she recounts with sadness.
“I had no choice but to leave home and start begging in trains with other community members. We also rented a house in Jatni and started living together and supporting each other,” Lipsa adds.
Did she ever think about going back to her family? “In a society that has no space for anyone who’s different, I had no option of going back home or even asking for any kind of financial help from my family,” she answers.
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In November last year, though, Lipsa had a lucky break when she managed a job as office support staff in a Jatni Municipality project. Remarkably, the job opening was specifically for transgender persons (besides persons with disabilities). The job brought financial stability to her life. But she feels little reason to rejoice. She worries about the fate of her friends who have not had the same educational opportunities as she has had. In the current circumstances, not just jobs in an office are out of their reach – even their traditional livelihoods are being lost.
How long will they manage to survive and how? No one seems to have reassuring answers.
The author of this article is a participant in the third pilot of the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (details in inset above) – Editor.
Main photo courtesy: S. Lipsa Rao