“Earlier I used to work in a bag factory, but lost my job due to my feminine expressions. Now, I sell water on a railway platform near my village. These 3-4 summer months are the only time when I earn profitably, in a year. I do not do anything for the rest of the year, as I am unable to find a suitable job for myself and often denied one. Imagine my loss as I am sitting at my home and losing out my money due to this lockdown, during the peak season. I have nothing to eat now or shortly. This uncertainty is driving me to depression,” lamented Sazia, a 22-year-old transgender woman living in a village of South 24 Paraganas, Kolkata.
The nationwide lockdown has become the reason for disconcertment for any daily wage earner in India right now. The situation, however, is grimmer as far as the lives of numerous transgender people are concerned as their only source of livelihood is from regular jobs. This is true for almost all transgender people from Hijra profession and also outside of it. The ones in Hijra profession are in a Gordian knot, as their major source of livelihood is from the streets.
They are in literal terms ‘locked’ inside their residence with no basic supplies or access to money. The Indian Hijra community embraces people with myriad gender identities and sexual orientations, forming a culturally unique gender group. It broadly includes male to female transgender, intersexed persons, crossdressers and transsexuals but, are largely discriminated against.
Over time, they have sanctioned a social role of blessing newlyweds and new-borns by singing and performances along with typical ‘claps’ that no one misses; also called badhai. Nowadays begging, launda-dancing (performances with sexual innuendoes by transgender women or gay men in ceremonies, wearing feminine attires) and prostitution is also common due to lack of alternative employment opportunities.
“I came to Bihar in January for launda-dancing and I was supposed to stay here until March. March is over, but the lockdown has just begun. I am stuck here, with food and money depleting as if by hours. How will I return and when?” Sandipta feebled through the phone about her insecurities. For not so well-off transgender community, the price of sustenance (like rent and utility bills) is too high with no flow of income. Historically, these people have little or no socio-economic backing or even support from their families. In many cases, staying home may also become a potential danger to them, where they fall prey to violence from their family members or partner. Being able to earn, usually give them some sense of independence to fight back in the family. It seems this unprecedented lockdown is pilfering away a lot more than their livelihood.
‘Social distance’ could be a new vocabulary for the community, but the meaning of it had been felt and imbibed in every trans person’s mind and soul. The society has always been maintaining a decent ‘social distance’ as well as ‘physical distance’ with gender minority communities for a long time. On any normal day, this would not have mattered much to the community, but in these helpless times, as the virus tightens its grip each passing day, the actual distance between the society and the community widens further. Elected government being a part of this society is reluctant to include them in the mainstream. Public health care, education, work have always been inaccessible and unattainable for them.
Given the present scenario and the relief packages announced by the Centre and the State governments to the distressed sections of the population, the transgender community will remain the worst hit. First, no proper enumeration of the community was ever done even at the state level. So, it is impossible to estimate, as in how many will benefit from these ‘relief packages’. There are many without any identity card that certifies their gender, many without any card under public distribution scheme and many without any document at all. Many such marginalized communities are being excluded from major relief programs and are further pushed into indigence. The only way to cater to them is to go through the local community-based organization in districts and various NGOs, which are relentlessly working to reach them. But, their resources are drying up as well. So the future of these communities in distant villages, where aides may never reach is more uncertain than ever.
COVID-19 is challenging the very foundation of the public health system and this community is already out of that system due to stigma and prejudices. Most of the members of the community are already in a compromised state of health. Several reports and studies have shown high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, cancer and consumption of tobacco, all of which makes the immune system weaker and more susceptible to infections. Barriers to health care, such as access and lack of insurance make it difficult for them to receive medical care. But how and when are the members of this community getting tested for coronavirus? What is the number that needs to be tested? Alas, finding an answer would not be an easy task. The problems are so deep-rooted that solutions are probably more distant than the discovery of vaccines for the coronavirus. It is less likely that, when the whole public health management is crumbling, one marginalized community will get any help, at all. India will probably learn a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic, including the need to improvise population counting, categorizing and catering, leaving aside the official technicalities that bound someone either as ‘male’ or ‘female’.
“I have to go to the hospital every day. It is my duty. I always want to help people and it is in my nature. Initially, it was difficult for me to manage transportation to work, but now the hospital administration provided a bus. I am happy that I can go to work,” Jiya Das an OT technician from a private hospital in Kolkata and a member of the transgender community, enthusiastically replied when asked about her lockdown moments. Jiya is a ‘corona warrior’ trying to provide essential services to the very society that rejected her one day. This situation should be an intimation on how important it is to change the attitude of people and the government toward minority communities.
(The writer is a PhD Scholar at Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).