The transgender community has had a harrowing time this last one year, reports MANASH PRATIM DUTTA.
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The month of July 2020 saw Guwahati battling the transmission of COVID-19. It was a very tough time. Amidst this crisis, one particular incident drew public attention: a clash that took place in the Bhootnath area between two groups of transgender people, during which several were injured and a case was registered with the local police. In the police complaint, the incident is cited as a confrontation between two groups of people, but in reality, it reveals the impact of the lockdown on the transgender community.

Not just in Guwahati, but across Assam, most transgender people rely on begging in public places to earn their daily bread and butter. During the lockdown, they lost this source of income as the public was confined to their homes.

“When COVID-19 cases started being reported in the State, people stopped giving us money. Most people directly said that they could get infected with the virus through us. It was a tough time for us,” said Rekha, a city-based transgender person.

Rekha shared that during the months-long lockdown, they only got Rs. 1,500 as one-time assistance from the district administration. And as they are socially alienated, it was not possible for them to stand in queues to avail free ration from the NGOs.

Sushila, a transgender person from Rangiya in the Kamrup district, said that she took loans from multiple sources to survive during the lockdown. “I earned my living by begging on trains. But as the train services were restricted during the lockdown, I had no source of income.”

According to the 2011 census, Assam has a transgender population of around 11,374, including 1,348 children. Although their literacy rate is around 54 per cent, most opt for begging to earn their living. One of the major reasons for this is stigma and discrimination, due to which members of the transgender community are denied jobs on account of their choice of clothing, and also on account of their behavioural traits.

Explaining the situation faced by the transgender community in Assam, Swati Bidhan Barua, Associate Vice-Chairperson of the Assam State Transgender Welfare Board, said that the hardship of the members of this community started in February-2020 when they were barred from begging in public places as a preventive measure to check the spread of the novel coronavirus. “Since February last year, this section of people has been struggling for their daily bread and butter. Most of them do not have a ration card. In most cases, they lag behind in availing facilities under government schemes. Following the lockdown, their condition worsened,” Barua said.

Escalating violence

Meanwhile, a section of transgender people also faced physical and mental harassment from their family members because they had become a financial liability during the lockdown period.

One such person is Mantu Ram Das from Bongaigaon. Mantu said that the behaviour of her family members totally changed when she lost all her savings amid the lockdown. “Before the lockdown, I was in Mumbai and worked in an NGO. My income was good and my relationship with my family members was also normal. But when I returned from Mumbai, the situation took a turn for the worse. Initially, I used to spend my savings to help my family, but when my savings ran out, their behaviour also changed.”

Another transgender, who wants to remain anonymous, said that her boyfriend physically tortured her during the lockdown. “He had never displayed such behaviour. But during the lockdown, he lost his income and became very upset. One day, he asked me for some money, but I was suffering financial hardships too. Ultimately there was an altercation between us and he beat me; I received multiple injuries,” she disclosed.

Meanwhile, Juli, a Guwahati-based transgender person, alleged that the recent phenomenon of “fake transgender” has become a serious issue, posing challenges for them in earning a livelihood. “Most of them are actually men,” she said, adding, “They come from outside the State and start begging at public places by impersonating as transgender people. Their behaviour is not good, due to which most people have started doubting the whole community. We have already informed the authorities, but no action has been taken.”

These conflicts became apparent after the lockdown was lifted. Clashes broke out among transgender people begging on the stretch of the National Highway that bypasses the city. Skirmishes with passengers in public buses also broke out regularly. In fact, such incidents became quite common in areas like Lokhra Chariali, Gorchuk Chariali, etc.

After the lockdown

Despite these crises, there was some good news, too. Some members of the transgender community took advantage of the lockdown to enhance their skills. Mantu Ram Das, for example, said she didn’t want to beg to earn a living. But it is also not easy for her to find a job in Assam. So she is pursuing a beautician’s course at Tritiyo Nivas – a shelter home-cum-skill development centre for transgender people, in Hatigaon, Guwahati.

Tritiyo Nivas is a joint initiative of the North East Voluntary Association of Rural Development and the All Assam Transgender Association. The centre is run under the aegis of the Social Welfare Department. It was set up through a fund of two crore rupees allocated by the State Government to the Department. The fund was lying unspent for a long time. Swati Bidhan Barua said they are planning to set up more such shelter and skill development centres.

In another recent development, around 42 transgender candidates filled up forms to appear in the Combined Competitive (Preliminary) Examination, 2020, conducted by the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC) for recruitment to the posts of ACS junior grade and other allied services.

These small steps have been taken despite, or perhaps because of the restrictions during the lockdown, which prompted new thinking about livelihoods.

(The study was carried out under the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grant for Journalists from the North-East.)

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