Amidst a lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, poor management of public aid is disproportionally striking the LGBTQ+ community in India.
The prolonged 21-day shutdown of businesses has left vast numbers of migrant labourers – without food and shelter – walking on foot to hurriedly reach their hometowns and villages. Following their exodus, many states have attempted setting up community kitchens to feed workers even as many continue to walk back home.
However, the transgender community seems to be at a greater risk without any access to similar food and ration facilities.
“Four trans friends who live in a shared rented house in Kotla Mubarakpur area of Delhi called me pleading for help as they are left with only a little rice and salt for ration,” said Manoj, a volunteer of with the Humsafar LGBTQ Trust.
A large influx, Manoj said, in the number of calls for the same left him worried because even after the Supreme Court’s approval of the Transgender Policy facilitating the introduction of welfare schemes for the community, just about 2,500-3,000 trans people, out of 4.88 lakh according to last census (2011), have the necessary documentation to avail this facility.
Thirty-one-year-old Poonam, who is forced to beg for a living on at Shadipur in Delhi, is worried as her rent for two months is due very soon. “I have no family to save money for, so I used to earn money on a daily basis and spend likewise. I have come to know about the free ration schemes through television but I have also been hearing police’s siren every now and then and the fear of getting beaten up with lathis is more dreadful. And I don’t want to be a matter of public shame, I can’t bear it anymore,” said Poonam.
Like Poonam, Nirvair, who lives in Kapashera – where many sex workers live – asked for help for ‘free ration’ from a local MLA, but the closure of transportation services and fear of police harassment have caused panic amongst members of her community. Nobody is willing to risk stepping out of their homes to be a beneficiary of this aid.
“It’s ironic, the world is trying to win a battle with isolation and social distancing, but we have always been isolated and socially neglected so the isolation doesn’t affect us that much,” she said.
Cherry, a sex worker, said, “We also live hand-to-mouth and there is certainly no work now”. She also pointed to the social stigma attached to sex work as a reason for many workers not receiving relief.
“We can’t even access food, how are we supposed to get medicines or get ourselves diagnosed for that matter? We cannot reveal our status and source of income to claim any relief measures. What are we supposed to do then?” she asked.
However, Nirvair believes that the earnings of sex workers might resume once the nationwide lockdown is lifted. The members of the trans community who depend on begging may be denied of income for about two or three more months.
From Delhi to Assam, the trans community faces similar problems. In the Kamrupa (Metro) district of Assam, the community lives in fear, given the hostile behaviour of the families that live alongside them. “Even if we don’t ask for money, people address us using abusive and sometimes vulgar language. They think we are ‘dirty’ and more prone to getting contaminated with viruses, so they maintain extra distance from us,” said Juli, who lives in the area.
Swati Bidhan Baruah, the first trans judge in Assam, held government officials responsible for the “food-crisis-like situation” as remote support has been ramped up, specifically, for the poor and marginalised communities.
“There’s no doubt that the LGBTQ+ community has always been subjected to discrimination. But if a member from this community belongs to any of the northeastern states, then they are subjected to an additional layer of discrimination and that is of national identity,” Swati said.
In the meantime, Swati Bidhan, along with an NGO called All Assam Transgender Association, has started a fundraising campaign for transpersons to ensure that they are able to access supplies of basic food and ration.
As the whole world is grappling with the fear of the novel coronavirus, this community is, once again, facing a humanitarian crisis.
Jyoti Thakur is currently studying journalism at Kalindi College, University of Delhi.