Kolkata / Howrah, May 23, 2020: The Amphan super cyclone that battered West Bengal on May 20, 2020 has forced Meghna, a resident of Howrah city, to use a tarpaulin sheet as a roof for her first-floor kitchen and bathroom. The main room of her house has lost all windows and doors, with clothes now being used as curtains to screen the frames.

A distraught Meghna shared over a phone interview that she is unable to find anyone to repair the damages because of the lockdown to counter the coronavirus pandemic. Neither does she know how she is going to sustain herself and her family through the year.

Till last year, Meghna would work six months as a Launda dancer during the biannual Lagan season of weddings and other festivities in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. This would help her earn enough for the whole year. But the pandemic and lockdown prevented her from earning much in the season just gone by and there is no certainty about earnings during the rest of the year.

Quote: Sintu, who leads a trans support group Kolkata Anandam, adds that most trans women in West Bengal have only a handful of livelihood options – sex work, Launda Nach, 'chhalla' and 'badhai'. Each of these has come to a standstill. Almost two months of lockdown has taken away their income and now the cyclone has destroyed their homes. She says, “I’m at a loss as to how to motivate my community members – should they focus on earning money or repairing their homes?”Sintu Bagui, trans rights activist from Sheoraphuli in Hooghly district and Lok Adalat Member Judge in the same district, talks about similar hardships experienced by trans women in Hooghly and northern parts of Kolkata. She says that information is still coming in from different parts of Hooghly district as the phone and internet connections have been erratic at best. But the information received so far narrates the same story everywhere – the 120-130 km per hour cyclonic winds have left many trans women and their families without shelter and staring at an uncertain future, perhaps even more than the insecurity caused by coronavirus.

Sintu, who leads a trans support group Kolkata Anandam, adds that most trans women in West Bengal have only a handful of livelihood options – sex work, Launda Nach, chhalla and badhai. Each of these has come to a standstill. Almost two months of lockdown has taken away their income and now the cyclone has destroyed their homes. She says, “I’m at a loss as to how to motivate my community members – should they focus on earning money or repairing their homes?”

Sintu also talks about the impact of the pandemic, lockdown and cyclone on other vulnerable groups like female sex workers and their children. Her group Kolkata Anandam is assessing who needs what kind of support and is trying to raise resources for all vulnerable groups in its working area. The group has so far reached out to more than 1,000 trans individuals with coronavirus relief.

Everyone has been impacted by the string of recent calamities in different degrees. But Meghna and Sintu’s experiences clearly show that already marginalized communities, especially those with extremely limited livelihood opportunities, are going to find it much more difficult to recover from the grievous losses suffered. And yet the process of rebuilding has to begin somewhere and must factor in all the emergencies rather than looking at piecemeal solutions.

The immediate priorities are house repairs, arrangements for temporary shelter, provision of dry ration and / or cooked food (as the need may be), and cash support. But not long from now, ideas, inputs and resources for sustainable livelihood options will also be a dire need.

Inset: ‘Coronavirus Diary’ – queer citizen journalism in action! This monthly Varta webzine column brings you news and analysis on how queer communities, other vulnerable groups, and their allies are responding to the hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdown in India. Content published under ‘Coronavirus Diary’ is contributed by participants in the third pilot of the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (May to September 2020). This edition of the programme also involves strategic dissemination of the published reports for community morale building, experience sharing and advocacy to ensure that affected people gain access to resources for immediate survival and long-term self-sustenance. The VCR Programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other social markers. In the process, it also attempts to enhance the employability of the participants. The programme consists of training workshops (including online ones), mentoring sessions, and writers workshops on gender, sexuality, human rights, communication, documentation and storytelling. The current pilot is the third under the VCR Programme. It covers Assam, Odisha and West Bengal states, and there are seven VCRs (queer individuals and allies) engaged in the programme. This pilot is supported by CREA, Delhi. The first pilot of the VCR Programme was conducted in Manipur from March to August 2018, and stories generated through the pilot were published under the ‘Manipur Diary’ column. The second pilot, from February to July 2019, covered Assam, Manipur and West Bengal and the stories generated were published under the ‘VCR Diary’ column – Editor.

Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme.

If you would like to provide support for relief operations among trans women and other vulnerable communities, please contact Sintu Bagui, Kolkata Anandam at 0091 70593 37307 or Aparna Banerjee, Amitie’ Trust at 0091 98748 71578 (Amitie’ Trust is a queer support group based in Hooghly district). For more information, please write to Varta Trust at vartablog@gmail.com – Editor.

Main illustration credit: Pawan Dhall (the photograph in the illustration shows a scene from Broad Street in South Kolkata a day after the Amphan cyclone ravaged the city)