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.

Quote: 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, 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!

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, extended till March 2021). 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.

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.

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