Islampur / Gangarampur, May 16, 2020: Around 85 trans women from the districts of Uttar Dinajpur and Dakshin Dinajpur in North Bengal are stuck in different districts of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh because of the lockdown to check the coronavirus pandemic. These individuals are engaged in the seasonal practice of Lagan or Launda Nach – dancing during weddings and religious festivals. The Lagan season happens twice a year and is the livelihood mainstay for hundreds of trans women from West Bengal (as also from other parts of India and neighbouring Nepal). It is often also an escape from incessant family violence.

When the sudden lockdown was announced in late March, the Lagan season was almost over. But some trans women, who earn much smaller amounts per day compared to their better established peers, had decided to stay on longer to earn more during the festival of Chaita or during occasions like child birth. Most of these dancers are now stranded without work in Arrah (Bhojpur district) and Chhapra (Saran) in Bihar, and Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh. Some are living in temporary rented accommodation while others are depending on their agents for food and shelter (these agents or middlemen help them get work during Lagan).

Quote: When the sudden lockdown was announced in late March, the Lagan season was almost over. But some trans women had decided to stay on a bit longer to earn an extra income. Most of these dancers are now stranded without work in Arrah (Bhojpur district) and Chhapra (Saran district) in Bihar, and Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh. Some are living in temporary rented accommodation while others are depending on their agents for food and shelter.Launda Nach as an occupation has its own set of challenges around exploitation, violence, sexual and mental health concerns, and work uncertainty. But right now the dancers are faced with the question of sheer survival. Listen to this podcast which includes a 19-minute interview with Joyita Mondal, transgender social worker from Islampur in Uttar Dinajpur. She takes us through the trials of the Launda dancers in some detail, and raises pertinent questions that cannot be ignored.

Joyita points out, “Money, food, shelter – everything’s fast running out for these seasonal migrants who don’t seem to figure anywhere on the priority list of the government. It’s their own community members in Bihar and back home in West Bengal who’re trying to look out for them.”

On government support, Joyita says that the district administration officials are waiting for instructions from their higher-ups in the state government. In the meantime, when she is not busy making phone calls to facilitate provisions for her fellow community members stuck far away from home, she worries about how they can return home safe without getting exposed to the virus or exposing others in case they are infected but asymptomatic.

As and when they do get back, will they have safe and respectful quarantine options? ‘Safety’ and ‘respect’ – which some of us take for granted are rare and precious for many trans women at the best of times. And most government and private health institutions, in spite of court verdicts and legislations on transgender rights, fail to provide trans inclusive services.

Finally, Joyita’s biggest worry is something that should resonate with each one of us. What are the future livelihood prospects for the Launda dancers as and when the lockdown ends? What possibilities will the next Lagan season bring? Will they have to look elsewhere for work? Will there be work?

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 have any suggestions or want to provide support for the dancers, please write to us at vartablog@gmail.com or directly to Joyita Mondal at dinajpurnotunaalo@gmail.com (email address of Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, a non-profit led by Joyita) – Editor.

This story was picked up and amplified by The Indian Express newspaper through a report titled Stuck in Bihar Village, Transwomen Dancers from Bengal Just Want to Get Home – Editor.

About the main photo: A Launda dancer from West Bengal poses for the camera somewhere in Bihar before a performance. Face blurred to maintain confidentiality. Photo courtesy Joyita Mondal