Located in the innermost depths of Chanakya Place in West Delhi, a narrow lane leads into a dilapidated building, hardly noticeable to a passerby. One would almost think it to be a place vacant for years now. The crumbling walls and rundown staircase adds value to that thought. But the third floor of this insignificant structure happens to be the work place of a group of spirited transgenders, optimistic of their ability to make the world a better place for their kind.
This group of young queers belong to an organisation called the ‘Mitr Trust’, that works towards empowering transgenders to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. They get funded from various government agencies working on similar issues. For the last eight months they have not been paid their salaries. They had been managing somehow, resorting to some kind of side business, in most cases sex work, begging and toli badhai ( a custom in which transgenders in India make congratulatory visits to homes on occasions of childbirth and weddings and make token monetary gains in return). In the midst of this long period of financial crisis, a new calamity broke upon them when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1000.
Neetu, a lively transgender in her mid-20s says she has been forced to go back to sex work because of the money crunch she has been facing for a while now. The demonetisation move only worsened her situation. “Now due to cash ban customers cannot pay. Business has been severely affected,” she says, adding that she supports PM Modi’s move as it will challenge black money accumulation.
As of 2014, the number of transgenders in the country stood at 4.9 lakh. Gender activists claim the number to be much higher. Out of these, majority are employed in the unorganised sector, particularly sex work and begging because of the lack of opportunities available to them as a result of social stigma. Cash is the only source of livelihood majority of them understand.
Rudrani Chhetri, a leading member of the Mitr Trust explains the nature of monetary savings among transgenders. “There are different ranks among transgenders. The top class are ones who have a lot of money. They go to events, weddings, childbirth and so on and get money. All of that money is saved in cash. The saving size is enormous. They want to stay out of public view, so where would they spend the money? Neither do they go to cinemas, or restaurants nor any other source of entertainment. Majority of them save this cash for their death ceremony when the entire community is invited,” she says.
But the effect of demonetisation on this special section of society goes beyond the obvious problems of a cash-based economic arrangement. The lack of recognition in society and the social stigma attached to them is perhaps the biggest problem faced by the transgenders in this charged environment of note politics in the country.
The undue hassle to get ID cards
For 21-year-old Ritika Shergill, life has always been a battle. Born as a transgender in a middle class family of West Delhi’s Tilak Nagar, she dropped out of school when she was in Class VI or VII. “I did not get admission in a girls’ school first, then when I joined a boys’ school I used to be harassed and exploited by my classmates everyday. So I left school and started living with my guru,” she says. Since then, Ritika has survived on making door-to-door congratulatory visits and more recently joined the Mitra trust, where she has not been paid for about a year.
For Ritika, the NALSA verdict of 2014 came as a ray of hope to finally get some kind of formal recognition in society. The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs. the Union of India was a milestone judgment passed in 2014 when the Supreme Court asked all state authorities to provide legal recognition to transgenders of the country as ‘third genders’.
It’s been two years since the landmark judgement was passed, but the implementation has hardly been realised. Asked whether she has any form of identity proof, necessary to exchange old currency, Ritika says she does not. “In order to get an Aadhar card or voter ID I would need to provide a number of other documents like school certificates and birth certificate. How do I provide them?” she says.
The matter got further complicated when in 2016 the Transgender Rights Bill was placed in the Lok Sabha. Many aspects of the bill ran in complete conflict with the NALSA verdict. While the 2014 verdict gave freedom to everyone to choose a gender identity for themselves, the 2016 Bill lays out clear definitions regarding who can be considered a transgender. Further, it places ‘screening authorities’ to decide whether a person qualifies for a ‘third gender’ ID proof.
“After the NALSA judgment we were supposed to get ID cards. But the 2016 bill makes that difficult as well. Now we have to prove through a doctor’s certificate that we are transgenders. How is that possible? All of us do not have a surgery or certificate. How do I prove my transgender identity?” asks Vidyadevi, a transgender activist.
When the note ban was announced, Ritika had about Rs 25,000 saved in cash. In the absence of an ID proof she handed over her money to her family.
The harassment of standing in queues
Rudrani Chhetri (38) grew up in South Delhi as an effeminate boy. Unlike several others in her community she was fortunate enough to complete her education with a Bachelor’s in English Literature. Having the required documents, she managed to get an ID proof with female gender identity and has a bank account as well.
When the cash ban was announced she had Rs 4,500 in old currency with. However, the ownership of an identity proof did not empower her to go and stand in the queue like everyone else.
“I did not go to bank because I was so sure that I would be harassed there and tortured in different ways. From my understanding, whenever there is a larger crowd, you get harassed as a transgender person. So I did not go. I asked a male colleague, who is also gay, but is not a visible sexual minority to go and exchange the notes,” she said.
The harassment of standing in queues was real for Ritika, who spent three and half hours waiting only to be troubled by a group of boys.
“When I was about to exchange my notes, some boys came from behind me and started harassing me. They started touching me and some of them were trying to click pictures of me. I was in a lot of problem and I immediately approached the guard. He responded saying there is nothing he can do,” says Ritika.
On another instance, Neetu who identifies herself as transgender, but has a male ID card, went to exchange her currency notes. She was questioned for a long time regarding her feminine clothing and appearance.
While Neetu, Rudrani and Ritika did manage to exchange their notes despite all the problems they faced, there are several others of the community who are still struggling, not just with the money but also with their social identity. Unwinding after yet another day of unpaid work, Rudrani sat down to contemplate upon the present government’s policies towards transgenders. “Maybe this decision to ban notes will strike down upon black money. But what about us? We will still have struggle with money in any case,” she said.