Inside Sandeep Nagar, India’s New Haven for Transgender Women

The small town houses India’s first cooperative society run entirely by transgender women.

Oct 8 2020, 1:24pmSnap

Before the sun comes up over the hill and the morning turns warm, Bhoomika makes herself a cup of tea in her new home. Tying a green sari around her hips, Bhoomika clips the folds neatly to her blouse, grabs a large steel container, and heads to the nearby shed to milk cows. This is daily life in Sandeep Nagar, India’s first cooperative society run entirely by transgender women.

Located in the outskirts of Kovilpatti, a town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sandeep Nagar looks like an oasis enveloped in dense green farmland. Coconut trees sway in the distance, and neat rows of solar-powered blue and green homes spread across two acres of land. The town is dedicated to housing transgender women and providing job opportunities, and was inaugurated in a lively celebration last month by the 30 new residents.

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“I used to earn about [$3.00] a day by begging and dancing,” said Bhoomika, the president of the cooperative. “Now, I now have my own cow and land.” In Sandeep Nagar, Bhoomika spends her days milking the cows, taking care of her home, chatting with neighbors, distributing the month’s earnings, arranging for cattle feed, and checking on the farm equipment. “I can live a dignified life,” she said.

(Courtesy Of Thoothukudi District Collector's Office​)

Though residents are now thrilled, the town didn’t come easily. Sandeep Nagar was first envisioned six years ago by Grace Banu, one of India's most prominent transgender activists. It took years of work and campaigning by the Trans Rights Now Collective, which Banu heads, to make the town come to life. The collective, based in the state capital of Chennai, works with India’s transgender community to implement education and employment initiatives. “We have been trying to get housing allotment and identity cards for the trans community in Kovilpatti for years, but there was no response from the district officials,” she told VICE News.

Finally, with the appointment of Sandeep Nanduri, a transgender-friendly district magistrate and chief administrator of the area, things began to change. “He quickly passed the order to get us documentation and suggested not just a place for them to live, but the idea of a milk farmers society to generate income,” said Banu. Their collective dairy farm, Manthithoppu Transgenders Milk Cooperative Society, was registered with government support, and the women, Banu added, were so pleased with Nanduri’s enthusiasm that they named the new village after him.

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“Housing communities for transgender [people] are common, but what is new is having a business attached to it,” said Nanduri. He plans to help the small town create a milk parlour where women can sell other dairy products too. “With the Sandeep Nagar model, we wanted to show that it can be replicated easily across the country,” Nanduri added.

Originally from Kovilpatti, the new Sandeep Nagar residents told VICE News that they have been discriminated against for years and struggled to access stable incomes, sustainable living situations, and adequate documentation that would allow them to access government welfare. They are not alone: Throughout India, the transgender community has been systematically pushed to the margins. A 2018 report from the National Human Rights Commission in India found that 92 percent of the country’s transgender community are excluded from sanctioned economic activities and that almost 100 percent of the study respondents reported that they faced social rejection. They also found that approximately 30 percent of the transgender population never attended school, and of those that did, almost 50 percent dropped out before completing the 10th grade, due to bullying and verbal abuse from peers and teachers. Last year, national legislation was passed that purports to protect transgender rights, though activists have criticized the bill as regressive, partially due to the fact that the government now requires people to register and submit proof of gender confirmation surgeries. “There have been no significant grassroots initiatives for transgenders in India that gives us basic rights,” noted Banu.

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For many, the establishment of Sandeep Nagar is seen as a progressive alternative. “There is so much work to do in trans inclusion that we need multiple models,” said Parmesh Shahani, queer advocate and author of the book Queeristan: LGBT Inclusion at the Indian Workplace. Shahani has witnessed different attempts to better include the transgender community in India, like in corporate workplaces, but added that Banu’s cooperative model with a state partnership was new and exciting. “It is unique. I haven't come across anything like it in India,” he said. “It can be scaled up and set up in urban areas too.”

(Courtesy Of Thoothukudi District Collector's Office​)

While there have been several societies set up for transgender communities elsewhere in India, Sandeep Nagar is the first cooperative society in India that provides both housing and employment. "I don't feel cut off from Kovilpatti,” said Bhoomika. “I am relieved that no one can drive me out of here, like landlords did when I lived in rented homes. This is my home, registered under my name.”

“Sandeep Nagar is an important milestone because through this initiative, the community has got land rights and employment rights,” added Banu. “They can live, eat and dress the way they want, without being discriminated [against] and bullied. Thanks to the security of permanent employment and housing, they can think about creative ideas for the future and access a better standard of living.”

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Banu, who has long served as a mediator between the government and the transgender community, moved temporarily from the state capital of Chennai to Sandeep Nagar to help the women through the adjustment.  She has spent the last month teaching them how to fill out official paperwork, and ensuring the smooth functioning of the dairy business. The society currently owns thirty cows, and sells roughly 80 gallons a day to Aavin, the state milk company, for almost $140 a day. When the milk collection van arrives, the women pour milk into deep canisters before loading them into the back of the van. In the evening, the whole process is repeated again, and in six months, the women will receive thirty more cows from the government. They also plan to build houses for 50 new residents soon.

(Courtesy Of Thoothukudi District Collector's Office​)

(Courtesy Of Thoothukudi District Collector's Office​)

The plan is to go beyond the dairy farm and become a center for multiple ventures. “We are setting up a skill development centre where trans women who dropped out can finish their education, others can take up tailoring, a computer course, and we can welcome trans men, too,” said Banu.

Yamini, another resident, is eager to learn tailoring. “After years of begging, in the last few months I have been able to learn new skills,” she said. “I believe there should be a Sandeep Nagar everywhere.”

Tagged:

activism, Ινδία, transgender, trans women, worldnews

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